What Is Chemo Brain, and How Long Do Symptoms Usually Last?

    chemo brain

    You’ve heard about pregnancy brain, but what about chemo brain? Cancer patients often complain about forgetfulness, trouble paying attention, confusion, and other brain fog-like symptoms that appear after starting chemotherapy. Now, a recent study confirms these cognitive issues that patients usually call chemo brain are, in fact, real.

    What Are Some Common Symptoms?

    Chemo brain is one side effect that many cancer patients report — and it’s a real, diagnosable condition. Chemotherapy can cause it, obviously. But so can the cancer itself or even secondary medical conditions. Patients usually describe chemo brain as a foggy or slow feeling that makes it harder to process information.

    Common chemo brain symptoms include:

    • Trouble concentrating, particularly on just one task
    • Increased short-term memory loss
    • Mixing up dates and appointments
    • Misplacing things more often
    • Spoonerisms (switching the letters that start two different words, like “runny babbit” for “bunny rabbit”)
    • Trouble finding the right word or phrase (a “tip of your brain” feeling)
    • Feeling mentally slow/sluggish compared to your usual self

    A 2016 study researched where chemo brain comes from, and how doctors might treat cancer patients that have it. The study examined brain activity in breast cancer patients over a one-year period. At the study’s beginning, researchers asked breast cancer chemo patients and control subjects to perform a Verbal Working Memory Task. Both groups then completed the same task again at five months and then one year post-treatment. The chemotherapy group performed significantly worse on the task 12 months after finishing treatment. They also had persistent neural inefficiency in executive network fMRI-activation. More plainly, women in the chemo group had more trouble concentrating, making decisions and planning things than control subjects did.

    Strategies to Help You Cope With Chemo Brain

    Sadly, there’s no cure (or approved treatment) for chemo brain. Some chemo brain sufferers improve with stimulants, but others do not. If you’re already taking Ritalin or Focalin for ADHD symptoms, for example, it’s unlikely that taking more will help you concentrate better.

    These strategies for relieving chemo brain symptoms may help you, and none require prescription medications:

    • Exercise — Regular physical activity is known to improve mental function in most people. Not convinced? Look at this brain image scan from before going on a 20-minute walk and immediately afterward. Even mild exercise can help you focus and improve short-term memory.
    • Sleep — Fatigue definitely worsens chemo brain. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep at night and rest during the day to relieve some chemo brain symptoms.
    • Use memory aids — Use a notebook, make a list on your phone, or use any other method to track things you’d otherwise forget. Some patients benefit from carrying around a small recorder they can dictate into and play back to remind themselves later.
    • Minimize distractions — Keep your environment quiet and free from any distractions. If you work in a loud or distracting office space, request a different cubicle or move somewhere quieter, if necessary.
    • Manage depression/anxiety — Do whatever works best to help manage your stress and anxiety. Take a long shower, have lunch with a friend, eat some chocolate, or read a book.
    • Read Dan Silverman’s book, Your Brain After Chemo: A Practical Guide to Lifting the Fog and Getting Back Your Focus.

    How Long Does It Usually Last?

    Just like every patient responds differently to cancer drugs, everyone’s chemo brain symptoms are also unique. Some people’s symptoms start fading right after chemotherapy ends. However, it make take a year or more after finishing treatment before you feel totally back to normal. Unfortunately, a few sufferers may never regain the full mental capacity they had prior to treatment.

    Long-term chemo side effects are real. While most are short-term, lasting conditions such as chemo brain and hair loss can haunt patients long after treatment ends. Chemo brain can occur with any chemotherapy regimen — but permanent hair loss is associated with only breast cancer drug Taxotere. The drug’s generic formula, docetaxel, can also cause permanent hair loss after finishing breast cancer chemotherapy.

    If you or someone you love didn’t grow back all lost hair after finishing chemo, you may qualify for compensation. To check your eligibility for a cash settlement, fill out your free Taxotere claim evaluation form today. You’ll see your results online in less than two minutes. Once you’ve submitted your information, an experienced lawyer will call to discuss your case and possible compensation options.

    Related: Cancer Medicine Permanent Side Effects That Can Show Up Years Later

    Mandy Voisin

    Mandy Voisin is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of Girls of the Ocean and Star of Deliverance. As an accomplished content marketing consultant, mom of four and doctor's wife, Mandy has written hundreds of articles about dangerous drugs and medical devices, medical issues that impact disabled Americans, veterans' healthcare and workers' compensation issues since 2016.

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