Chemo brain: What’s going on?

Chemo brain: What’s going on?

Michelle Blose, M.S.

“Being forgetful doesn’t mean you’ve lost your intelligence.”

According to the Mayo Clinic (2018), chemo brain is a term used by cancer survivors to describe thinking and memory problems that occur during chemotherapy. Chemo brain is partially based on body and mind fatigue (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, 2018). However, it is important to note that this is misleading as chemotherapy is not the only cause of concentration and memory issues in cancer patients. Currently, there is no known prevention for chemo brain (American Cancer Society, 2018).

Per Mayo Clinic (2018), the following are symptoms of chemo brain: being unusually disorganized confusion, difficulty concentrating, difficulty finding the right word, difficulty learning new skills, difficulty multitasking, fatigue, feeling of mental fogginess, short attention span, short-term memory problems, taking longer than usual to complete routine tasks, trouble with verbal memory, such as remembering a conversation, and trouble with visual memory, such as recalling an image or list of words. Of note, these symptoms are real and not imagined. These can be extremely distressing to the patients experiencing the cognitive deficits.

The American Cancer Society (2018) stated that chemo brain is caused by multiple factors including: the cancer itself, other drugs used as part of treatment, such as steroids, anti-nausea, or pain medicines, surgery and the drugs used during surgery (anesthesia), low blood counts, sleep problems, infection, tiredness (fatigue), hormone changes or hormone treatments, other illnesses, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, nutritional deficiencies, patient age, depression, and stress, anxiety, worry, or other emotional pressure.

What helps someone who is suffering from chemo brain? First, compensatory strategies are essential as well as useful. For example, using a detailed daily planner or one’s smart phone. Other tactics include, taking a class, doing word puzzles, or learning a new language. It is important to get enough rest and sleep, eat vegetables, set-up and follow routines, try not to multi-task, pick a certain place for commonly lost objects, and get regular physical activity. Another thing is to track memory problems. With this, keep a track of when the problems occur, track medications and situations that may affect one’s memory. Be aware that it is okay to ask for help. For those who suffer from chemo brain, help them recognize that it is important to not focus on how much these symptoms bother the patient (American Cancer Society, 2018).

Of note, for the majority of patients, chemo brain will improve 9-12 months after completing chemotherapy, but many still have symptoms at the six-month mark (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, 2018). “For the minority of people who do have long-term effects, they can be noticeable even 10 years after completing treatment. However, these side effects should be stable and not worsening. If they are getting worse 10 or more years later, [one] should speak with your doctor” (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, 2018). For individuals who have lasting symptoms, medicines for diseases like depression, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, and dementia may be helpful- more research needs to be completed, however (WebMD, 2018).


American Cancer Society. (2018). Chemo brain. Retrieved from

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. (2018). Retrieved from

Mayo Clinic. (2018). Chemo brain. Retrieved from

WebMD. (2018). What is chemo brain? Retrieved from


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.