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Many people going through cancer treatment notice changes in their memory and thinking abilities. This is often described as ‘chemo brain.’ This fact sheet discusses:

  • What chemo brain is
  • The importance of being open and getting help
  • Tips to help your brain function and memory

What is Chemo Brain?

Chemo brain refers to changes in memory, attention and other mental abilities that come from cancer treatment. Once believed to come only with chemotherapy, chemo brain is now thought to come from a range of factors, possibly including the cancer itself.

Chemo brain may feel like a fogginess of thought, lack of attention or focus, or an inability to remember things. Often it goes away at the end of treatment, but can linger in some cases. There is no treatment for chemo brain yet, but there are ways to help its effects.

Share With Others and Getting Help

It is important to tell loved ones and members of your care team what you are going through. There is no shame in dealing with the side effects of treatment. Letting people know you may be forgetful or distracted can let them help you.

If symptoms of chemo brain make you anxious or sad, or they interfere with everyday functioning, don’t wait to seek help.

  • Speak with an oncology social worker. Oncology social workers, such as those at CancerCare, can help you find ways to cope and connect you to additional resources.

  • Tell your doctor about your concerns to deal with contributing factors, such as sleep problems or persistent pain.

  • Ask for a referral to a neuropsychologist for an evaluation of your mental and emotional functioning and possible recommendations for treatment.

Memory Strategies

Keep a Memory Planner. Use a notebook, daily planner or your phone to keep track of important information. This can include to-do lists, days, times and addresses for appointments, important telephone numbers and pill schedules.

Make a checklist of daily reminders. Put it on your refrigerator or even on your bathroom mirror so you’ll be sure to look at it several times a day.

Sleep. Make sure you get plenty of rest. This will give you more energy and clarity for the day ahead. Short power naps can help, too.

Get moving. Regular physical activity improves blood flow to the brain and is linked to improved memory.

Eat well. A healthy diet is good for your body, can make you feel more alert and is linked to lower rates of memory decline.

Keep your mind active. Do crossword puzzles, Sudoku or take a class for fun to learn something new. These keep your mind engaged and prepared for more vital tasks.

Train yourself to focus. Slow down and pay attention to one thing at a time. Picture what you’re doing and describe it out loud to yourself. These sight and sound cues give your memory an extra boost.

Avoid distractions. Work, read and do your thinking in an uncluttered, peaceful environment. Have conversations in quiet places to help you concentrate better and recall what was said more easily.

Organize your environment. Keep personal items in designated places so you’ll always know where they are, such as keys and cell phone on a table by the front door.

Repeat information aloud and write down important points. If possible, follow up with a text or email to confirm you have all the correct details.

Use mnemonics. These memory strategies involve a silly phrase, image or rhyme to jog your memory, such as “30 days hath September…”

Chew gum. Research shows that chewing gum can keep you more alert and improve attention and memory.

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This fact sheet is supported by AllianceRx Walgreens Prime and Takeda Oncology.

Last updated Friday, April 26, 2024

The information presented in this publication is provided for your general information only. It is not intended as medical advice and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultations with qualified health professionals who are aware of your specific situation. We encourage you to take information and questions back to your individual health care provider as a way of creating a dialogue and partnership about your cancer and your treatment.

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