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Tips for Dealing with ‘Chemo Brain’

Posted by Kanza Abbas, M.D. on Jun 28, 2017 8:03:00 AM

Many of my cancer patients on chemotherapy come to me at some point asking about mental cloudiness. Since starting treatment, they’ve experienced memory lapses, trouble concentrating, problems remembering details, losing track of time and forgetting common words. 

It can be frustrating, even scary, but it’s not uncommon and the severity varies. It can be subtle or it can significantly affect your daily life. 

What Causes Chemo Brain?

Although this mental cloudiness has been termed “chemo brain,” the exact cause is unknown. Other causes may include: 

  • Other drugs used for treatment, such as steroids or hormone replacements
  • Low blood counts
  • Hormonal changes
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Sleep issues
  • Infection
  • The stress, anxiety and depression that can come with dealing with cancer 

How to Cope with Chemo Brain

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The first step in coping with day-to-day brain fog is to accept that it’s happening. It’s yet another side effect of the biggest fight of your life, but it’s not something you cannot manage. Although it may be frustrating to not feel as sharp as you used to, if you approach it with a sense of humor, it will be easier for you and your loved ones to handle. 

Another way to cope is to exercise, not just your body, but also your brain! Physical activity improves mood, increases alertness and decreases fatigue. Equally as important are activities that sharpen your mind, such as puzzles, word games and brain teasers. 

Watching your diet is, of course, already crucial to helping your body fight cancer, but studies have shown that eating more vegetables is linked to retaining brain power. 

Be Your Own Personal Assistant

Before cancer, you may have been able to rattle off the 20 things you need from the grocery store without looking at a list. You may have been able to remember directions after only going to a location once. But things are different now, so you might have to take a different approach. 

  • Keep a daily planner (paper or on your phone), with to-do lists, website passwords, appointments, medicine reminders, etc.
  • Try to follow the same schedule every day. Things will happen to throw you off course, but having regular routines will help you cope even when the unexpected happens.
  • Don’t try to multitask. Yes, I don’t doubt you were a superhero of multitasking before cancer, but for now, focus on one thing at a time. 

If you are dealing with chemo brain, don’t fret. While it may be frustrating, it’s not permanent. However, if cognitive impairment is interfering with work or causing problems within your personal life, talk to your doctor. 


Dr. Kanza Abbas is a board-certified physician specializing in Hematology/Oncology at the Kelsey-Seybold Cancer Center at the Main Campus and Spring Medical and Diagnostic Center. She views her role as utilizing her medical knowledge to assist patients in making the best decisions and supporting them through their cancer journey.


Topics: chemotherapy side effects, chemo brain, chemotheraphy

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