Just about everyone knows that chemotherapy might lead to hair loss and may leave you feeling tired and nauseous. The chemo brain phenomenon however is not exactly common knowledge. Nevertheless, many cancer patients find themselves struggling with it. Forgetfulness and poor concentration often arise after cancer treatments. But what exactly is a chemo brain and what can you do about it?
Forgetful after chemo: sounds familiar?
Starting a conversation and forgetting what it is you wanted to say exactly halfway through your sentence, keeping all sorts of lists to prevent you from forgetting things, not being able to focus on a crossword puzzle, getting distracted at work... These are just a few examples of the forgetfulness and absent-mindedness that can affect you after chemotherapy and other cancer treatments (e.g. radiotherapy, hormone therapy, or surgery).
Chemo brain in a nutshell
One could describe a chemo brain as a decrease in mental agility. You have a hard time multitasking, you struggle with acquiring new skills, you may have trouble remembering words, names, dates ... that you used to recall effortlessly. Everything tends to slow down a bit and sometimes it might seem impossible to keep your attention on the matter.
Causes and consequences of concentration problems from chemotherapy
The exact cause underlying the problem remains unknown. At any point during your cancer recovery process, you may be affected by a chemo brain. Alongside cancer treatment, other factors contribute to the problem: advanced age, menopause, medication, sleep deprivation...
Good thing: most people dealing with cancer only temporarily suffer from it. Still, the impact of a chemo brain on your job (or school) and social life may be significant. While the outside world may notice little changes, you feel things differently. Simple fact is, you are not performing as well as you used to, and it can get quite frustrating to feel as if you have lost your mental focus. In some cases, the phenomenon does persist for a longer period of time resulting in a much greater impact, even in the long run.
So, what to do about it?
Before anything else, do not start stressing out and feverishly training your brain with memory exercises and the like. This will only add to your frustration. More advisable is to take a step back, clear your head, and integrate more time for relaxation into your schedule. Do try to get enough sleep, eat an abundant amount of vegetables—these have a positive effect on the vitality of your brain—and avoid alcohol and other substances that interfere with your sleep pattern. Meditation can be a great way to increase your focus and awareness.
When your day-to-day tasks become overwhelming, do not hesitate to ask your family and friends for help. Speaking out and discussing the problem will help those around you to understand what is going on exactly. Dealing with a chemo brain is obviously not as visible a problem as, for example, hair loss. As it is less well known, it may sometimes be a source of confusion or a lack of understanding. In other words, the more you share with colleagues, friends, and family, the better they can grasp where the problem lies!
Extra tip: keep a diary!
Keep a record of the times when your memory troubles you the most. You may notice that the intake of medication, the time of day, or certain other events play a part in the problem. This helps you to anticipate and avoid problems or difficult situations. The diary can also come in handy when raising the issue to your doctor: you know exactly which concentration and memory problems you are experiencing and when.
Burdened by a chemo brain? Six practical tips to simplify your daily life
- Whether you use a detailed diary, a notebook or your smartphone, keep track of all your appointments, to do's, birthdays, notes, interesting websites, books... in a single place.
- Find out at what time of the day your energy level is at its highest - your journal helps! - and use that time slot to schedule the tasks that require the most of you mentally.
- Just for this once, embrace routine: it helps. A repeating daily structure makes it easier to keep your mind on the job.
- Put your keys, your purse, wallet... and any other items you regularly lose, always in the same place. Gather them, for example, in a basket in the hallway.
- Do. Not. Multitask. Research already found that it really does not work for anyone, let alone if you are having trouble concentrating after chemotherapy.
- Sprinkle a little humour on your forgetfulness. A good laugh goes a long way. Additionally... Forgot your friend's birthday again? Chemo brain ;-)!