What is Chemo Brain?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2018
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Chemo brain is an unusual condition that is nevertheless common. It refers to changes in cognition/emotion/perception that may affect those who are treated for cancer. Though the term references chemotherapy, the exact reason for chemo brain occurring isn’t known, and there may be one or more things that either temporarily or permanently result in changes to brain function.

When chemo brain occurs, it can actually be shown on many brain scans as changes to the way the brain works. How these changes are caused is still being researched and debated. Sometimes chemotherapy appears to result in chemo brain, but other times additional treatments like immunotherapy, hormone therapy or radiation might be the underlying cause. There are some researchers who believe the stress of undergoing cancer treatment and of fighting cancer may alter brain function, or that other conditions that result from cancer treatment, like early menopause create problems.


People may suffer from one or more brain changes as a result of chemo brain. Some people find it very hard to multitask, and others forget things like words or numbers, dates, appointments, names, or details. It can feel like doing previously easy tasks takes too long. Alternately people may have a short attention span and can’t concentrate with the same ease as before cancer diagnosis and treatment. Sometimes emotional behavior is more affected, and some people might have trouble reining in emotions. Other people report a sensation of mental fogginess or spaciness as a principal symptom.

People can certainly have more than one of these symptoms at the same time, and appearance of many of them may feel devastating. It’s important to mention these to doctors and also to start some things that might help cope with and/or resolve some of the issues. First, changing behavior to match the brain may be helpful; difficulty multitasking could mean avoiding it. Forgetting names, numbers or appointments could be helped by keeping reminders around, such as date books or PDAs. Close family should also be told of the problem because they may be able to assist and this could reduce frustration level, which gets in the way of stronger cognition.

Though there is not one recognized treatment for chemo brain, there may be a few things that help. Some people find it useful to use medications that are designed for attention deficit disorder. Doctors might also recommend people do some memory or puzzle solving exercises each day, and many hand held game systems have this kind of training available, or people can do things like Sudoku or crossword puzzles. Since stress can be a major component, many find benefit in working with a therapist or counselor too.

Most people recover from chemo brain but it may take a few years. While experiencing it, people should be assured that the symptoms they have do not make them crazy or abnormal. Even though precise manner of developing chemo brain isn’t known, this is a very real side effect of cancer and cancer treatment, and many others will experience the same thing.



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