Side effect of chemotherapy: chemobrain

Chemobrain refers to mild cognitive impairment due to chemotherapy. Doctors and researchers are not clear about the causes of chemobrain or sometimes called chemofog. Yet, doctors are clear that mild cognitive impairment effects about 20-30% of chemotherapy patients. Some research studies put the effects as high as 50% of chemotherapy patients.

How do you know if you have chemobrain? Difficulties with some tasks may suggest mild cognitive impairment.

Word finding skills- You may not be able to think of the right words to use during a normal conversation. Most people experience word finding problems to some extent, however, chemotherapy patients may find it happening more than usual.
Short term memory loss- You may find yourself forgetting everyday information such as a grocery list, telephone numbers, or even highways.
Multi-tasking- You may find yourself unable to handle doing more than one thing at a time. For instance, carrying on a conversation and driving may be more difficult than usual.

Learning – It may be more difficult for you to learn something new, or it just might take longer to learn it.

Processing speed- It may seem to take longer for you to “get it”. Sometimes, I find myself just staring and thinking longer than usual when someone has given me directions.

Many factors may contribute to chemobrain. The brain has a filtering system that prevents certain chemicals from entering the brain through the blood system. Researchers believe that instead of the body filtering all of the chemotherapy drugs from entering the brain, some may be able to penetrate that gatekeeper. However, it is still unknown which chemotherapy drugs can get through the filtering system. Researchers do know that patients who undergo radiation and chemotherapy have a higher risk of experiencing some effects of chemobrain. Other possible causes include low blood counts, medication used to treat side effects, pain medications, stress, hormonal changes and fatigue.

If you experience chemobrain, there are some behavioral changes that you can make to help yourself.

Exercise- Exercise your mind and your body. It will help to make you more alert.
Take notes – Keep track of when you have difficulty and what type of difficulty you experienced. Then perhaps you will see a pattern, enabling you to prepare ahead of time for episodes.
Begin a routine- Cancer has a way of disrupting daily life. Try to establish a new routine so that tasks are predictable.
Talk about it- Talk to your doctor about episodes and frustrations. Help your family understand by being open and talking about it.

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