Many people receiving treatment for breast cancer report trouble with memory or concentration. You may find yourself misplacing items more often or forgetting appointments. You may feel as though you’re in a “mental fog.”
This condition, often referred to as chemo brain, is one of the most common symptoms reported after cancer treatment. In many cases, chemo brain improves over time. But some women find that memory problems are a continual challenge in their personal and professional lives.
There has been growing recognition among doctors that chemotherapy can come with cognitive difficulties. Some chemotherapy drugs may cause changes in the brain. But researchers are only beginning to understand how chemotherapy affects memory.
Here are some frequently asked questions about chemo brain:
What symptoms should I watch out for?
The American Cancer Society offers these examples of symptoms related to chemo brain:
- Lapses in memory
- Problems with attention or concentration
- Trouble with details of events or common words
- Difficulty multi-tasking or completing tasks
Studies have shown that many people receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer perform more poorly on tests of memory and concentration. These effects may depend on which drug you receive or on the dose. But it’s often hard to tell whether chemotherapy is the cause of memory problems after cancer.
What can I do to improve chemo brain?
The following strategies may help with memory loss after chemotherapy:
- Write things down or set reminders on your computer or smartphone.
- Keep a regular routine, including rest and exercise.
- Avoid multitasking.
- Keep your mind going with word puzzles or other engaging activities.
- Get support from family and friends or consider joining a support group.
- Make a list of questions to discuss with your physician.
Do I need professional help?
Pay attention to when you first start having memory problems. This will make it easier to find ways to cope. Having a record will also help you share your experiences with your healthcare team.
If memory problems are interfering with your daily life, your doctor may refer you to an occupational therapist. Some doctors can also refer you to a clinical psychologist who can assess the situation and teach you strategies on how to cope with anxiety related to chemo brain.
Some people may find that memory problems make it difficult to return to work. If you’re concerned about your ability to work, ask your doctor to refer you to a social worker who can help you understand your options.
As cancer treatments improve and more people are now cancer survivors, additional research on this long-term effect of treatment is underway.