Simple Strategies for Dealing with Chemo Brain

When I started chemotherapy, I had little information about the chemo brain effect outside of some bad movie representations and a few vague articles provided by Dr. Google. My oncologist assured me that it was a real phenomenon, but not a consistent medical condition, and asked me to keep him informed about how I was affected.

It took a few months before I really began to exhibit consistent behavioral changes associated with memory, mental focus, and mood changes. I blamed the steroids I was taking as much as the chemotherapy. I tried to keep a log of how I felt each day of my cycle, looking for trends. Then I began developing strategies to deal with what I was coming to understand about how treatment was affecting my cognitive abilities.

Learning to Communicate and Slow Down

The first thing I did was begin talking about it. I wanted my wife and co-workers to understand why I might be forgetful or appear absent-minded. I wanted people to know it might take me longer to process information on some days and to help me see when I might need to take some additional time to complete a task.

Communicating is more difficult when the language center of the brain is affected, but communication is still important. Maybe even more so. I've always been a person prone to quick responses and training myself to slow down was not an easy feat, but I came to realize that my initial response was not always the best one; before I react, I try to take a breath and catalog the information before me. Not surprisingly, I have found this to be a useful tactic even on my days when there is no obvious brain fog...

Making Lists to Improve Productivity

But nothing has helped me as much as making lists. My ability to function and be a productive member of my family has been maintained largely through checking off items on a piece of paper. I keep a stack of small, blank pieces of paper on my desk for one-off items that need to be addressed for work -- each of these gets set right on my keyboard so I have to actually touch it before I can type anything (or lose hours by going down the rabbit hole of social media). And a notepad is always at my side or in my pocket to be referenced throughout the day.

Focusing on the Positive

Lastly, not taking myself too seriously has been a hugely important step. The natural foibles associated with being a cancer patient are constantly there as reminders of my own humanity. Embracing those aspects of care and accepting them for what they are has been an essential part of moving past the hindrances of treatment. Focusing on the negative aspects does nothing to enhance the quality of a patient's life. We must acknowledge them, of course, and remain aware of how our bodies and minds are affected, but at the same time, we cannot let these things constantly guide our perspective of the world.

While chemo brain is an acknowledged fact of life for many patients, it does affect us all differently. There are many contributing factors, from sleep deprivation to stress, that we can address independently. And we must find our own ways to navigate these challenges. By doing so, we improve the lives we have and hopefully make it easier to live -- and find joy -- in each moment.

Editor's Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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