Got Chemo Brain?
by Karen Syrjala, PhD
A harsh irony is sometimes involved in moving on after cancer treatment. Having emerged from the darkness of a life-threatening disease, you may now find yourself in a haze of cognitive problems known collectively as chemo brain.
Common words and familiar names are on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t spit them out. Keys, cell phones, and remote controls are misplaced. Distractions derail the simplest train of thought and interfere with completing everyday tasks. The world you knew and the life you had before cancer may feel out of focus – even out of reach.
But there is good news for survivors struggling with chemo brain. Not only has research confirmed what survivors have been reporting all along – that chemo brain, despite some lingering skepticism, is real – but we now know that the symptoms of chemo brain are largely temporary for most people, and there are proven ways of coping with them.
Use helpful memory tools.
Implementing some simple memory-boosting strategies into your routine will make your life easier if you’re dealing with chemo brain. For example, carry a notebook, smartphone, or tablet with you to keep track of all your appointments, lists, errands, and other tasks. Put everything you want to remember in it, and always keep it in the same place – in your handbag or backpack is ideal. Then be sure to leave that handbag or backpack in the same place every day – perhaps in a basket by your front door. Anything you want to take with you when you leave the house goes in the basket as well: keys, items to return, your wallet, etc.
It’s been proven that exercise is good for the mind. Set aside 30 minutes for your brain and body five days a week.
If you regularly forget to do something, put a sticky note in a place where you will always see it. For example, if you forget to take medication at night but you always remember to brush your teeth, keep your medication by your toothbrush and put a sticky note in front of it that says medication. It’s also helpful to repeat aloud anything you want to remember. Mental rehearsal can make it easier for the information to stick.
You may want to try computer programs that are designed to improve memory and attention span. It is not yet known if they can help cancer survivors combat chemo brain, but they certainly can’t hurt. So go ahead and try the ones that interest you.
Take care of your physical health.
It’s been proven that exercise is good for the mind. Set a goal of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Start slowly and gradually build up to your goal. Engaging in regular exercise will increase blood flow to your brain, help stabilize your emotions, boost your confidence, and lessen your fatigue.
You also should develop good sleeping habits, as getting a good night’s sleep can help boost your memory and concentration. Eating healthy foods is beneficial as well.
Make lifestyle adjustments.
Take a close look at your lifestyle, and make adjustments that will help you cut through the fog of chemo brain. Do your most intense mental work during the time of day when you are most alert. Pace your daily expectations and scheduling to make each day’s demands match your abilities as they are right now, not as you want them to be. Schedule downtime; meditate, walk, or rest to let your brain recover from intense work and to consolidate learning. Incorporate simple habits into your routine like leaving your keys in the same place every day or always doing regular tasks in the same order so they become second nature, and save the heavy thinking for when you need it most. Eliminate distractions so you can concentrate on one task at a time. Turn off your radio, TV, computer, and phone, and close the door when you need to focus.
Remind yourself that it’s fine to do things differently than you used to; what counts is accomplishing what needs to be done, not how you do it. Breathe deeply, relax, and give yourself a break when you feel frustrated. These lifestyle changes will eventually become your new lifestyle, one geared toward minimizing the disruptions caused by chemo brain.
Face your feelings.
If you’re experiencing depression, feeling frustrated, fearful, or angry, or going through other mood disturbances, get help. These kinds of feelings can complicate memory problems. Tell your doctor if you’re experiencing these feelings and ask for guidance, seek out counseling, and take any other steps needed to manage your mood.
Remember that you’re a survivor.
Even if chemo brain is interfering with your memory, always keep one thing firmly in mind: You’ve already made it this far against a life-threatening challenge, and you can keep going. The symptoms of chemo brain should pass with time. Go easy on yourself and take heart – you’re a cancer survivor. You can survive and thrive through this too.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Dr. Karen Syrjala is codirector of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Survivorship Program, director of Biobehavioral Sciences, and a member of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2013.