Chemo and Forgetfulness: It’s Not All in Your Head


If you’re undergoing chemotherapy and you feel more forgetful than ever, it’s not all in your head. Studies have shown that this side effect from treatment is real – and quite common. You may also find that you can’t pay attention, stay focused, learn new things, or even manage daily activities.

What causes “chemo brain?”
A variety of factors can cause cognitive symptoms:

•The chemotherapy treatment or even the cancer itself
•Poor sleep and fatigue
•Anxiety, depression, and stress
•Low red blood count (anemia)
•Hormonal changes
•Certain medications used to treat side effects from chemotherapy
Doctors are studying whether certain people are more likely to suffer these cognitive problems with chemo as well. They’re also looking into exactly how the brain is affected, and if certain chemo drugs cause more problems than others. Studies have shown promising results when some patients with memory problems are treated with modafinil, a medicine used to treat narcolepsy. In time, this research may help doctors treat or even prevent cognitive side effects of cancer treatments.

Tips for improving memory and concentration
Feeling foggy? Start by talking to your doctor about your symptoms. He or she will work to pinpoint possible causes and treat them. In addition, the following tips can make it easier to cope:

•Don’t overdo it. If you’re working, ask your boss about reducing your load. Don’t commit to projects or events that you don’t have the energy for. You’ll just feel overwhelmed. Also make sure to get plenty of rest.
•Focus on one thing at a time. Avoiding distractions will help you stay on task.
•Label cabinets and drawers. This will help you to find things quickly.
•Get help from friends and family. They can assist with household tasks like paying bills and grocery shopping. Having an extra set of hands and eyes will make it easier to get things done without missing anything.
•Keep a calendar and make lists. Use a personal organizer or calendar to keep track of appointments. Also make lists of things that need to be done. Assign due dates to everything and check tasks off as you finish them.
•Be patient with yourself. Forgetting words or misplacing things can be frustrating. Don’t be hard on yourself if you feel like you’re just not able to function the way you used to. Your body is going through a lot right now.
•Stay active. With your doctor’s OK, try walking, swimming, or doing yoga to keep your body and mind refreshed and alert.
•Keep your brain busy. Doing crossword puzzles, playing a musical instrument or even knitting are activities that will “exercise” your brain.
Thankfully, most patients notice an improvement in brain function when chemotherapy ends. Progress may be slow, but most people return to normal functioning over time.

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