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What is Chemo Brain?

Read Time: 3 minutes

Woman holding a cloud on a string where her head should be

During cancer treatment it is not uncommon to experience changes in the way you think. This is referred to as chemo brain. People often describe it as feeling like they are in a fog—forgetful and unable to focus or find the right words

What are the signs and symptoms of chemo brain?

You may find it harder to do these things during your cancer treatment:

  • Think fast
  • Pay attention
  • Find the right words
  • Multi-task
  • Remember things
  • Learn new things

What causes chemo brain?

Chemo brain can be caused by multiple factors.

  • Cancer (ie. brain tumors)
  • Drugs used during treatment
  • Conditions related to cancer treatment
    • Stress, anxiety, and depression
    • Anemia
    • Pain
    • Sleep issues
    • Infection
    • Fatigue
    • Hormone changes

What can I do about these changes?

  • Get organized.
    • Keep a record of important dates and tasks. You can use a planner, calendar, or cell phone app. Record these types of things:
      • To-do lists
      • Times and locations of appointments
      • Phone numbers
      • Names and descriptions of people you want to remember
    • Decide which tasks are most important and do them first.
    • Take time every day to update your lists. Cross things off when you finish them.
    • Ask other people for help.
    • Break big tasks into smaller parts. Take breaks when you feel tired or lose focus.
    • Set alarms on your phone or computer to remind you when to do things on your list. You can also set alarms to remind you when it is time to take your medicines. If you don’t have a cell phone or computer, write down your daily routine. Post it in a place you will see it often, like the refrigerator or bathroom mirror.
    • Pick a certain place to keep things you use a lot, like your car keys or glasses.
  • Train yourself to focus.
    • When people tell you things, write them down. Then repeat them out loud.
    • When you read things, use a highlighter or underline important information.
    • Make mental pictures of what you need to remember.
    • Keep a quiet, tidy space to do work and talk with others.
    • Learn the thoughts or emotions that distract you from what you want to do. Attend to them before starting your activity. When these thoughts come into your head, notice them and return to your work.
  • Take care of your brain.
    • Keep your mind active with puzzles, reading, or a new hobby that interests you.
    • Do these things to keep your memory working at its best:
      • Exercise
      • Eat well
      • Get plenty of sleep
      • Reduce stress with meditation or guided imagery. The social worker on your care team can help you learn these methods.

How long does chemo brain last?

Chemo brain can occur during, and after treatment. Sometimes the changes can last for years after your cancer treatment is over.

Should I talk to my doctor about chemo brain?

It is important to talk with your care team if the changes make it hard for you to do these things:

  • Take care of yourself
  • Take care of your family
  • Do your work

Also talk with your care team if the changes get worse over time. They may need to do further tests or provide medicine.

How can Huntsman Cancer Institute support services help?

For more about these topics or any other cancer-related concerns, contact the Cancer Learning Center.

Cancer touches all of us.