Many cancer patients experience mental fogginess during, and sometimes after, treatment. The term “chemobrain” was coined by cancer survivors to give their experience of cognitive changes a name. Since the turn of the century, medical providers and researchers have been studying chemobrain in order to better understand why it develops and who is likely to experience it. There is still a lot we do not know, but recent research has identified inflammation, due to either the cancer itself or various treatments, as one probable cause. Other factors that may negatively impact brain function following cancer treatment include anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, and cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure or cholesterol. These factors are important to treat and control in order to minimize the impact on cognition.
Chemobrain typically presents as forgetfulness, decreased attention span, difficulty finding words, and slowed processing of new information. These changes are generally mild and rarely get worse over time. Nevertheless, chemobrain can be difficult to cope with, especially when it comes about unexpectedly or in the midst of other stressors, like having cancer and paying for treatments. Chemobrain may make it more difficult or effortful to perform your job, take care of your family, or manage routine daily activities like usual. One of the most important things to recognize is that it gets better for most over time. And there are things you can do to help your brain function better, rather than work against it. Unless of course you’re fighting fires, it is generally a good idea to slow down and take your time with tasks. Take breaks to refresh your focus and work on one task at a time. Multi-tasking may actually make you less efficient in the long run, and often increases the likelihood of careless errors and mistakes. Lastly, do things you enjoy. Stress and frustration are bad for the brain, but activities that are mentally stimulating or emotionally fulfilling are good.
If you or someone you know are concerned about chemobrain, ask your doctor for a referral to our Neuropsychology Clinic at the Center for Supportive Care and Survivorship at Levine Cancer Institute for an evaluation and treatment plan.