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What is Chemo Brain?

Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy, often complain about problems like memory, attention, thinking and other mental problems. This ‘cloudy’ feeling or cognitive dysfunction is referred to as Chemo brain.

Unlike the name suggests, recent researches have shown that treatments like chemotherapy alone can’t explain it. 3 out of 4 people with cancer complaint that they don’t feel mentally sharp. Chemotherapy can be one of the factors for this, though it could also be attributed to cancer itself.

What are the causes of Chemo Brain?

It is not yet clear what causes memory problems in cancer patients. Cancer-related causes may include:

  • Certain chemotherapy drugs which could be neurotoxic causing damage to brain cells while killing cancer cells
  • Certain cancer itself can produce chemicals that start affecting the memory
  • A cancer diagnosis can cause stress and create memory problems
  • Anxiety, depression and stress related to the treatment
  • Inherited susceptibility to chemo brain
  • Medications for other cancer-related signs and symptoms, such as pain medications
  • Recurrent cancer that has spread to the brain

What are the risk factors of Chemo Brain?

There are certain risk factors that may increase the chances of memory problems in cancer survivors:

  • Higher doses of chemotherapy and radiation such as the one for bone marrow transplantation
  • Brain cancer
  • Younger age at the time of cancer diagnosis and treatment
  • Older patients who have lower cognitive reserves, or have comorbidities such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes
  • Chemotherapy given directly to the Central Nervous System

What are the symptoms of Chemo Brain?

  • Being unusually disorganized
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty finding the right word
  • Difficulty learning new skills
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling of mental fogginess
  • Short attention span
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Difficulty multitasking
  • Taking longer than usual to complete routine tasks
  • Trouble with verbal memory, Ex. remembering a conversation
  • Trouble with visual memory, such as recalling an image or list of words

How is Chemo Brain treated?

It is not sure what causes chemo brain so no cure has been identified yet. Symptoms vary from person to person so doctors focus on individualized method of coping.

No particular treatment path has been created yet for treating chemo brain.

What lifestyle changes are needed to deal with Chemo Brain?

A neuropsychologist can create a plan to help you cope with chemo brain symptoms:

  • Repetitive exercises to train your brain: Memory and thinking exercises may help your brain repair broken circuits that may contribute to chemo brain.
  • Tracking and understanding what influences memory problems: Tracking the memory problems can help in coping with them.
  • Learning coping strategies: A coping skills therapist may help you learn ways of speaking that help you commit conversations to memory and then retrieve those memories later. There are coping mechanisms and you can improvise to help your concentration.
  • Stress relief techniques: Stressful situations can make memory problems more likely. And having memory problems can be stressful. To end the cycle, you may learn relaxation techniques. These techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, may help you identify stress and help you cope.
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