Chemo brain is a term used to describe the cognitive decline you may experience while undergoing cancer treatment. Patients often describe it as a “foggy” thought process, marked by lack of focus and the inability to concentrate.

This frustrating phenomenon can have a significant impact on daily life. The mental challenges can lead you to withdraw from the activities you enjoyed before treatment,

and may prevent you from returning to school or work.

Doctors have found a link between chemo and thinking and memory problems. But there could be other contributing factors to consider.

Complications of chemo—such as anemia or hormonal imbalance—can affect cognition. Insomnia, anxiety, and depression could play a role in cog-fog as well.

Chemo brain can refer to an array of cognitive issues, but the most common problems that patients complain about are:

  • an inability to concentrate or focus on the task at hand
  • forgetting important things like dates, names, places, or appointments
  • an inability to multi-task or do two things at once
  • trouble finding the right word for common objects
  • disorganized thinking or a slowed thought process
  • misplacing items, such as your keys

Not everyone who undergoes radiation therapy or chemotherapy will experience cognitive complications.

Some factors that could increase your risk of suffering chemo brain include:

  • certain types of cancer (particularly brain cancer)
  • radiation to the central nervous system (which includes the brain and spinal cord)
  • your age at the time of diagnosis
  • the potency of chemo or radiation you’re exposed to
  • whole brain radiation therapy

If there’s a problem with your cognition, the very first thing you should do is tell your doctor. Chemo might not be the only explanation for your cog-fog. Your doctor will be able to sort out the root cause of your problem and help you find ways to alleviate it.

Addressing other factors such as poor sleep, increased anxiety, or a vitamin deficiency could help ease your mental challenges.

Even if your doctor determines that your cognitive problems are due to chemo, you can take steps to minimize the effects. Start by arming yourself with tools and habits that will make navigating your day easier.

For example:

  • lists: Free up your mind so you don’t have to remember crucial tasks.
  • sticky notes: Strategically place them to jog your memory when you need it.
  • kitchen timer: Stay on task and on schedule.
  • calendar: Mark down important events and refer to it often.
  • break routine: Switching habits like wearing your watch on the wrong hand can trigger memory recall.

The built-in functionality of your phone and the variety of downloadable add-ons available can aid your memory. You can use the camera on your phone to help you remember things like where you parked, or which items you’ve already bought. Use the voice recorder or send yourself an email to jot down thoughts.

Install a medication reminder app so you don’t forget to take your pills. Download a calendar app to keep track of appointments and other important events.

You don’t have to suffer chemo brain alone. Your family and friends can help you cope. Tasking the kids with remembering their own routines will ease your burden and encourage them to grow into responsible adults.

If others depend on you for transportation, have them call with a “pick-up” reminder. If you do the food shopping, have everyone help add items to your shopping list as you run out of them. Delegating memory responsibilities can lighten your mental load.

Because of the varied nature of studies and individual reporting, it’s difficult to form a timeline for cognitive symptoms. For most people, the symptoms are brief. Many people can return to work or school shortly after treatment and face minimal mental challenges.

Others may experience more severe symptoms. Long-term effects, such as trouble remembering daily tasks, can have a negative impact at home and work. For some people, it’s necessary to work at regaining mental clarity. Memory aids and other tools may be used to compensate for lack of cognition. In severe cases, some cancer survivors have to file for disability due to cognitive issues.

It’s also hard to say how common chemo brain is. According American Cancer Society, one expert put the risk for chemo brain at approximately 1 out of 2. That would make chemo brain a very common occurrence in people with chemo. Another expert reported a rate of 1 out of 6 people, which would make it much less common.

Talk to your doctor if you think you have chemo brain. They may be able to refer you to a specialist who can help. Speaking with your healthcare team can ease your anxiety about chemo brain while helping you discover all your options.