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Chemo brain is a problem with thinking and memory that can happen during and especially after chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Thinking and memory problems are called cognitive problems.
Chemo brain can make it hard for you to think, concentrate, and do tasks. You may have trouble remembering things. You may feel like your brain isn't working right. It can be frightening to have this happen, especially during an already stressful time.
These problems can be mild. But they can be so serious that people have a hard time working or doing their daily activities.
Cognitive problems may be caused by chemotherapy medicines used to treat cancer. They could occur because of the cancer itself and maybe because of other medicines used to treat cancer. The anxiety and stress of having cancer also may make it harder to think and remember.
Chemo brain may go away when treatment ends. But it can last for some people for months or years after treatment.
It's important to know that this is a real problem. You're not imagining it. Research is ongoing to learn more about how chemo brain occurs and how to prevent and treat it.
Symptoms vary depending on the person. But you may:
If the problem is mild, you may be the only one who notices any change in your behavior.
Your doctor will listen to your symptoms and examine you. He or she may ask questions about when you notice problems with your thinking and memory.
Your doctor will look for other causes of your thinking problems. For example, medicines to treat pain or—for women with certain cancers—medicines that block estrogen can cause foggy thinking. Dehydration, stress, depression, and trouble sleeping also can affect thinking and memory.
If your symptoms are very bad, your doctor may want you to have tests to see if something else may be causing cognitive problems.
If you are still having chemotherapy, your doctor may try a different type of chemo to see if that stops your cognitive problems or causes fewer problems. Studies are being done to see which cancer medicines might be less likely to cause these problems.
If you still have chemo brain a year after cancer treatment ends, your doctor may suggest that you see a neuropsychologist. These experts help people who have cognitive problems.
Other Works Consulted
American Cancer Society (2013). Chemo brain. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/physicalsideeffects/chemotherapyeffects/chemo-brain. Accessed July 26, 2013.
National Cancer Institute (2013). Managing chemotherapy side effects: Memory changes. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/chemo-side-effects/memory.pdf. Accessed July 26, 2013.
Current as of:
November 15, 2013
Catherine D. Serio, PhD - Behavioral Health
& Joseph O'Donnell, MD - Hematology, Oncology
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