Coping with Memory and Thinking Problems After Cancer Treatment
By Matt Windsor
Many cancer survivors feel that something has changed in their brains after treatment. It’s often described as a general mental dullness, or struggles with memory and attention. In the past five to 10 years, researchers have become very interested in this problem, known as “chemo brain” or “chemo fog.” Anywhere from 21 to 90 percent of patients say they have experienced chemo brain, according to studies, and other research shows symptoms lasting up to 20 years post-treatment, says UAB nursing professor Karen Meneses, Ph.D., founder of the Young Breast Cancer Survivorship Network. (Read more about the network.)
Chemo brain is one of the most troubling issues for cancer survivors, she adds. Researchers looking into chemo brain haven’t always documented cognitive problems in testing of survivors. But newer studies, including brain scans, have found brain changes, Meneses says. Whether or not a test reveals something, “your quality of life is what’s most important,” she adds. “Don’t dismiss it.”
Meneses suggests four practical ways to improve brain function. Physical exercise reduces fatigue, increases oxygen flow to the brain, and reduces dementia risk. Exercising the brain by learning new things, solving problems or crosswords, and journaling is also important, Meneses says. Eating a healthy diet high in lean proteins, vitamin B6, choline, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids is associated with better brain health. So are stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, relaxation, deep breathing, and guided imagery, she adds.
Chemo brain is a major challenge for people still in the workforce, says Meneses. But some simple steps can help:
Make notes and set reminders to keep your schedule organized. Carry a calendar with you at all times, or use your smartphone.
If you think of something you need to do, write it down; then it won't keep you up at night.
Plan your workload during the time of day your brain functions best.
Learn to pace yourself and prioritize.
Always keep your keys, phone, and wallet in the same place.
Diane Von Ah, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Indiana and a 2003 doctoral graduate of the UAB School of Nursing, was the lead author on a 2012 study that found that computerized brain-training software improved the cognitive deficits referred to as “chemo brain” in breast cancer survivors. Read more about the study and Von Ah’s other research into the challenges survivors face.