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Coping With Chemo Brain: Practical Tips

“Why did I come in here again?” Everyone feels a bit absent-minded from time to time. But if you have advanced breast cancer, you may find yourself feeling this way frequently. If so, it could be a problem commonly referred to as “chemobrain”. Chemobrain is a term that describes a feeling of mental cloudiness that includes trouble remembering, thinking, and concentrating. It can occur both during and after treatment. Doctors are not sure what causes chemobrain but there are things you can do to lessen the symptoms.

What are the symptoms of chemobrain?

People who experience chemobrain have problems with1,2:

  • Memory
  • Trouble remembering a conversation, an image or list of words, things that happened recently, and details like names and dates
  • Trouble finishing sentences or finding the right word
  • Concentration
  • Find it hard to focus on a task and have trouble doing more than one task at a time
  • Have a short attention span and more easily “space out”
  • Confusion
  • Feel mentally “foggy” or disorganized
  • Notice slower thinking and processing

Tell your doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. Your doctor may want to make sure that there is not another cause for these symptoms.3

Treating chemobrain

Most of the time, chemobrain is temporary but many of the things you can do to help are also important for overall health. These include1:

  • Get regular exercise - Physical activity is not just good for your body, it can make you feel more alert and awake.1
  • Get enough sleep - Make sure to rest and that your sleep is restorative. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and other substances that could affect the quality of your sleep.
  • Practice good nutrition - Certain foods are important for brain function. These include fish/seafood, nuts, avocado, oils/fats, and fruits/vegetables.4
  • Engage in stress-reducing activities - Mindfulness practices and progressive muscle relaxation help to relieve stress.

There is some evidence that certain medicines may be able to help in the treatment of chemobrain. Central nervous system (CNS) stimulants, like those used to treat children and adults with attention deficit disorder, may improve concentration. Medicines for dementia have also been used to treat memory problems.1,5

Tips for dealing with chemobrain on a day-to-day basis

There are things you can do each day to make it a little easier to deal with the symptoms of chemobrain.2

  • Use a daily planner, notebook, or smartphone - Keep all of your reminders and important information in the same place so you do not have to search in different places for them
  • Set up a daily schedule and follow routines
  • Do the tasks that require the most attention early in the day when energy levels are highest for most people
  • Try to focus on just one task at a time
  • Pick one place to put certain objects that you tend to lose a lot (like keys) and put them there each time you set them down
  • Do brain exercises - Repetitive memory and thinking exercises, crossword puzzles, and even learning a new language can help to strengthen your brain. A study in 2017 looked at whether a 15-week program of various mental exercises would help with some of the symptoms of chemobrain. The study found that people who used the program showed improvement right after they finished the program and 6 months later.6
  • Ask for help - Supportive family and friends can help by taking tasks off your plate.
  • Track your symptoms - Write down when you experience symptoms and note the time of day, whether you recently took medicine and anything else that may be happening at the time. You may notice a pattern. This can help you plan when to do, or not do, certain things that may require more focus or energy.

If you have experienced any trouble with memory, concentration, confusion, or any other symptom that worries you, talk to your doctor. Write down your questions and share any patterns that you have noticed. Your doctor will help you come up with a plan to manage symptoms.

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