Coping With Chemo Brain

Do you have chemo brain? It's a real thing. I know for a long time, doctors, especially, scoffed at the idea, but they now recognize its reality.

Forgetfulness vs chemo brain

The general public, though, doesn't seem to have a clue. I do blame a lot of my forgetfulness on chemo brain ... I think it deserves the blame. But, how many times have you mentioned that you have chemo brain only to be told, "Oh, I have it, too! I never had cancer or chemo, but I definitely know just what you're talking about."

I don't think they do. It is one thing to forget a word now and then. Or, to be so busy or have so much on your mind that you put the keys in the refrigerator or something. Everyone has those days where they are distracted or so tired that they are acting without thinking ... and it sometimes shows when they do something silly.

However, I think we, those of us who have cancer, face a different kind of memory issue than the general population. Ours usually have nothing to do with how tired we are (though they can be worse when we haven't gotten an adequate amount of rest). And, strangely, my symptoms may be completely different from yours.

Chemo brain is different for everyone

Jeffrey Wefel, Ph.D., associate professor of Neuro-Oncology and chief of Neuropsychology at MD Anderson in Houston, Texas, agrees. He says the fact that what cancer patients face varies by the patient makes it difficult to define chemo brain because for one person it might mean forgetfulness and for another, it might be a foggy brain. But what it is for everyone is a brain that no longer functions the same as it did before cancer.

Interestingly, Dr. Wefel says that, while we refer to chemo brain as something that happens to us as a result of chemotherapy, cognitive changes can occur even before any chemo is administered. Cancer alone, before we throw drugs (chemotherapy and even immunotherapy) into the mix, can "disrupt systems in the body that end up affecting mental function."1

A question that all of us who suffer from chemo brain have is, "Will it get better? Will it ever go away?" The answer seems to be, "It depends." According to Dr. Wefel, for some people, the effects of chemo brain improve over time. But, for others, the symptoms seem to continue over the long-term.

Helpful tips and tricks

While it may never go away, MD Anderson has some tips that may help those of us fighting chemo brain cope better2:

  • Keep a calendar. I can attest to this. If an event does not make it to my calendar, it doesn't exist! Even with a calendar, I sometimes forget to do something.
  • Rely on a loved one to help you remember everything you need to tell your physician. I don't know about you, but even something that concerns me today may be forgotten by tomorrow or, for sure, by next week. Your loved one (along with a notebook where you've jotted down notes as ideas or events occur) can help ensure that your doctor is told everything s/he needs to know at your visit.
  • Exercise - your body and your brain. Physical exercise has many known benefits, not the least of which is improving memory function. Mental exercises can help, too. Work on crossword puzzles, download and play some memory apps, or play some number games.
  • Set a routine. The simpler you can make your life, the better!
  • Get plenty of rest. This is important for everyone, cancer or not because when you're tired, memory issues are exacerbated.
  • Eat right. Eating a balanced, healthy diet is good for your entire body, including your mental faculties.

Here are two more tips that weren't part of the ones given by MD Anderson:

  • When you are fighting for a word or can't remember someone's name, explain to them that you have chemobrain, which causes cognitive issues from time to time. I've been known to put a very stupid definition on something (that thing with wings and feathers that flies around) to get help when I lose a word.
  • Most importantly, I think, is for you to give yourself a break. Fighting cancer is not for sissies! If you have memory lapses every now and then, it is okay. Besides, stressing will just make the issues worse.

Have you developed chemo brain? Do you have tips for how you cope with it? I'd love to hear them!

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