Chemo Brain: Everything you need to know!

Published Dec 2, 2022 • By Rahul Roy

Chemotherapy has revolutionized the medical industry to the extent that it has become synonymous with cancer treatments. However, the side effects of its treatment cannot be overlooked as it has wide-reaching consequences primarily in the form of Chemo brain. 

But what is Chemo brain? What are its symptoms and treatments? Is chemotherapy the sole aggravator of Chemo brain? 

Find out in this article! 

Chemo Brain: Everything you need to know!

Chemo brain or brain fog is a term that is used to describe cognitive problems faced by cancer patients before, during or generally after they have undergone chemotherapy treatment to treat their cancer. Cognitive impairment could relate to memory disorders, difficulties in concentration and hindrances in the ability to think clearly. However recent scientific reports have suggested that chemo brain could be derived from other reasons as well such as hormone therapy or radiation

But first to understand the causes and symptoms of chemo brain, it is important to understand why chemotherapy is conducted – 

Why is Chemotherapy conducted? 

Chemotherapy is a form of cancer treatment that uses powerful chemicals to kill cancerous or fast-growing cells in the affected patient. 

It can be administered in different forms either as oral medication over a period of time or through intravenous administration where the medicine is given through a tube into a vein of the body primarily the hand, arm or chest. 

It has helped millions of cancer patients worldwide and reduced the overall death rate of cancer. 
The drug works by damaging the genes present in the nucleus of cells and is more likely to damage the cells that are at the point of splitting or which are making copies of the genes before they split. 
There are different chemotherapeutic drugs that work at different stages of the cell division process. 
However, it is important to realize that it is not without its fair share of side effects some of which can hamper an individual’s life until his/her death. 

Causes of Chemo brain 

The fact that chemotherapy works on fast dividing cells, explains the reasons why it causes negative side effects because there are healthy cells that are constantly dividing in order to help the growth and development of the body. This damage to the healthy cells can cause long lasting physical and mental damage that can seriously hinder the cognitive thinking ability of an individual. Although chemo brain is mostly caused by chemo therapy it is important to note that that there are other factors as well that can accelerate the risk of developing chemo brain such as – 

  • Other means of cancer treatments such as hormone therapy, immunotherapy or radiation therapy can negatively affect the mental capacity of an individual 
  • The cancer in itself could cause problems with memory and thinking 
  • Cancer that has begun or spread to the brain. 
  • Depression, stress and anxiety from a cancer diagnosis could even be responsible for a debilitating mental condition. 
  • Side effects from chemo such as anemia or hormonal imbalance can affect memory and cognition 

To a lesser extent, it can also be caused by – 

  • Old age 
  • Deficiencies in nutrition 
  • Substance abuse such as alcohol and hard drugs 
  • Surgery and drugs used during surgery such as anesthesia 
  • Post-menopausal conditions for women 

Symptoms of Chemo brain 

The symptoms of chemo brain normally begin during and after the admission of chemotherapy but each patient is different and as mentioned above could vary based on the type of therapy taken to counter cancer. Some of the most commonly visible symptoms of chemo brain are – 

  • Inability or difficulty concentrating on a fixed task 
  • Memory loss and forgetting things that are normally remembered 
  • Short attention span 
  • Trouble learning new words or skills 
  • Mental fogginess that makes the mind slower than usual 
  • Difficulty multitasking 
  • Increase in time spent on finishing tasks 
  • Confusing common words during conversation 
  • Uncommonly disorganized and clumsy 

These mental aberrations could be temporary for some people but may be in the long term or even permanent for some patients. The changes may be subtle at first but it can gradually envelop a person.  

Treatments for Chemo brain 

Due to its fluctuating and unstable nature of occurrence, there are no fixed means of treatment that works for every patient. However, there are some measures that can be taken to improve the conditions for cognitive rehabilitation

  • Perform activities to improve brain function such as memory and thinking exercises 
  • Using a notebook or list to keep track of events that have occurred during the day as well as of upcoming events 
  • Exercise as much as possible as it improves thinking and the ability to focus 
  • Meditation helps improve brain function in addition to improving breathing 
  • Follow a healthy diet that is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants 
  • Finish the difficult tasks earlier in the day 
  • Get a good night’s sleep and possibly a nap in the afternoon to feel well rested 
  • Stress relief techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or mindfulness activities that help to cope 
  • Minimize distractions to the minimum to be able to focus on tasks 
  • Avoid alcohol and other substances that can alter the mental state 

Before undertaking any of the aforementioned activities, communicate these problems to the qualified practitioner so that he/she can recommend the best course of action and if needed direct the patient to a cognitive rehabilitation specialist

It is important to keep close friends and family informed so that they will be able to assist if needed. Most importantly, it is important to remain calm and composed as it may seem frustrating at times. These kind of issues could happen to anyone and it is a common problem that, with adequate care and attention, could get better over time. 

So, don’t let Chemo brain slow down your train. 

Did you like this article? 
Click on "Like" or share your feelings and questions with the community in the comments below! 
Take care of yourself! 

avatar Rahul Roy

Author: Rahul Roy, Health Writer

Rahul is a content creator at Carenity, specialised in health writing. Rahul is pursuing his masters in management from EDHEC Business School and in his spare time loves to play football and listen to music.

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Who reviewed it: Hela Ammar, Pharmacist, data scientist

Hela is a PharmD and holds a master's degree in Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Management from ESCP Business School. Through her various experiences, Hela has acquired a transversal vision of the health field and... >> Learn more


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