Chemo Brain: what is it and how long does it last?

For many years, cancer survivors have reported feelings of mild cognitive impairment, commonly referred to as ‘chemo brain’ or ‘chemo fog’. The exact cause is still unclear, but there seem to be several factors involved, not just chemotherapy. In fact, anyone undergoing cancer treatment may experience ‘chemo brain’, with some research studies suggesting up to 75% of cancer patients may be affected.

 

Chemo Brain Symptoms

Common symptoms of chemo brain include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty remembering facts e.g. people’s names, important dates (chemotherapy-induced dementia)
  • Getting confused more easily
  • Having trouble finding the right words or finishing sentences
  • Finding it hard to multitask
  • Taking longer to complete tasks
  • Finding it hard to learn new skills

 

How long can Chemo Brain last?

Due to difficulties in assessing and measuring the effects of chemo brain, there have been few studies into the duration of the cognitive impairment caused by cancer and its treatments.

However, a recent study in mice has shown that chemotherapy may cause cognitive impairment which lasts up to 3 months after treatment is stopped. If this model is applied to humans, it would equate to 10 years, suggesting that ‘chemo brain’ can indeed have long-lasting impact on the quality of life of cancer survivors.   

Chemo brain can start at any point in your treatment journey, and recent studies show that it can last even after your treatment has ended.

That said, symptoms of chemo brain vary from person to person, and no two people will have the same experience. You might find that chemo brain hardly affects you at all, or it might last for several months. Whatever your pathway, there are strategies you can use to manage your symptoms, and we’re here to help you do just that.

 

Chemo Brain Treatment

Currently, no drug treatment can help cure chemo brain. However, for many people, the symptoms are mild and can be managed by adapting their daily routine. For example, writing important dates in a calendar, writing notes to help with remembering tasks, making a shopping list to help with the supermarket shop, etc.

For some people keeping a diary of symptoms can also help you cope with chemo brain. With the help of a diary, it's easier to identify and minimise triggers (such as sleep deprivation). Identifying patterns in this way enables people to plan their day better, so that they do the most difficult tasks when they know they're likely to feel most able to cope with them. 

There has also been lots of research on the effects of both physical exercise and mental exercise on reducing ‘chemo brain’. These studies suggest that memory and concentration can both improve through regular exercise, as well as brain exercises such as crosswords and sudoku. You can find helpful tips and suggested products to combat chemo brain in our mind and brain and exercise categories.

 

What else can help with chemo brain?

Chemo brain is a form of cognitive impairment that can affect anyone with cancer, whether they're receiving chemotherapy or another type of treatment. While there's no drug that can cure it, there are lots of common techniques and exercises that can help cancer survivors reduce the impact chemo brain has on their life.

To find out more about 'chemo brain' and how you can fight it, browse our Mind and Brain collection.

 

 

 

References:

  • Prevelance, mechanisms and management of cancer related cognitive impairment. Michelle C. Janelsins, Ph.D., M.P.H., Assistant Professor,1,2 Shelli R. Kesler, Ph.D.,3 Tim A. Ahles, Ph.D.,4 and Gary R. Morrow, Ph.D., M.S.1,2,5 Int Rev Psychiatry. 2014 Feb; 26(1): 102–113.
  • The effectiveness of psychosocial interventions for cognitive dysfunction in cancer patients who have received chemotherapy: a systematic review.Hines S1, Ramis MA, Pike S, Chang AM. Worldviews Evid Based Nurs. 2014 Jun;11(3):187-93. 
  • Coping with cancer-related cognitive dysfunction: a scoping review of the literature. Sleight A1.Disabil Rehabil. 2016;38(4):400-8
  • Management of Cancer-related Cognitive Dysfunction—Conceptualization Challenges and Implications for Clinical Research and Practice. Pascal Jean-Pierre, PhD, MPH, US Oncol. 2010; 6: 9–12.
  • Long-lasting impairments in adult neurogenesis, spatial learning and memory from a standard chemotherapy regimen used to treat breast cancer, Catarina Rendeiro et al., Behavioural Brain Research, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2016.07.043, published online 18 August 2016

 

Photo credit: DigitalRalph via VisualHunt / CC BY

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