Chemo Brain: What to Expect

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Many people who are undergoing cancer treatment experience side effects that are commonly referred to as “chemo brain.” The chemicals involved in the medications may cause issues with cognitive functioning that can be frustrating and scary. Learn more about chemo brain and what you might experience here:

Chemo brain
The side effects known as chemo brain can be felt during, after or before chemotherapy treatment, or all of the above. Some women don’t experience this phenomena at all, but many do. Symptoms of chemo brain include:

  • Confusion
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Problems recalling visual memories like images or lists
  • Mental fogginess
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Issues with verbal memory like recalling a conversation
  • Fatigue
  • Shortened attention span
  • Taking longer than normal to complete tasks
  • Being more disorganized than is typical
  • Trouble multitasking

Who is at risk
According to the Mayo Clinic, people who are undergoing hormone therapy, immunotherapy, have had breast surgery or a stem cell transplant, or who are having chemotherapy are at risk of developing chemo brain. Many of these treatments can cause nutritional deficiencies, fatigue, anemia and even sleep problems, which heighten the effects of chemo brain. Some people have inherited susceptibility to the symptoms while others are experiencing similar issues because of other medications for the disease like pain killers.

Individuals who are younger when they are diagnosed and treated for breast cancer are at a higher risk of developing cognitive issues. People who receive high doses of chemotherapy or radiation, have chemo directed at the central nervous system or combined with whole-brain radiation, or have radiation therapy to the brain are also at higher risks of memory problems and cognitive thinking troubles. 

Duration and severity
Some people find they are able to function and even continue their job with chemo brain, just at a slower pace. Others have severe memory loss and concentration issues and require time with an occupational therapist to adjust to their current job or find a new one more suited to their strengths. 

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