Some cancers and treatments like chemotherapy and radiation can result in cognitive changes that affect thinking, learning, processing or remembering. This cognitive change formerly known as “cognitive dysfunction” has more recently been coined “chemo brain” or “chemo fog”. Up to 75% of people with cancer experience cognitive problems during treatment, and up to 35% have issues that continue for months after treatment has finished. Chemo brain can affect many aspects of life such as the ability to work, drive, shop or even do the simplest of tasks.

Cognitive training therapy, which is essentially brain-training exercises, is conducted by certified interventionists to treat cognitive dysfunction and use one of several training methods: memory training for remembering word lists, sequences, and text or speed-of-processing training involving commercially available brain-fitness software. Patients are anxious to participate in cognitive training studies with the goal of minimizing the long-term effects of chemo brain.

What is chemo brain and what is its long-term side-effects?

Chemo brain is chemotherapy-related cognitive dysfunction causing thinking and memory problems. To better understand its effects, listen to these cancer survivors as their discuss their personal stories of chemo brain.

Cognitive Training Studies

There have been several cognitive training studies on breast cancer survivors. The largest cognitive training study to date was conducted by Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis. This trial studied 82 long-term breast cancer survivors looking at various outcomes such as memory and speed of processing, mood disturbance, anxiety, fatigue and quality of life. As summarized in the study, “It was concluded that while both interventions appeared promising, speed of processing training resulted in immediate and durable improvements in objective measures of processing speed and verbal memory. Speed of processing training may have broader benefits in this clinical population.”

A second study conducted by Dr. Shelli Kessler, PhD of Stanford University School of Medicine, discusses the improvements found among post-chemotherapy patients as a result of cognitive therapy training.

What should you know about the signs and symptoms of chemo brain?

Cancer patients should be aware of coping strategies for chemo brain. Here are a few listed by the M.D. Anderson Cancer Clinic:

  • “Difficulty concentrating on a single task
  • Problems with short-term memory; forgetting details of recent events
  • Feeling mentally “slower” than usual
  • Confusing dates and appointments
  • Misplacing objects
  • Fumbling for the right word or phrase”

What are some strategies for coping with chemo brain?

Cancer Research UK gives some good chemo brain coping strategies. Here are a few of them:

  • “Try to keep your life as simple as possible and avoid trying to do too many things at the same time
  • Think about writing lists about what you need to do, things you need to buy and where you left things
  • Writing people’s names down with a brief description to help you remember them may be helpful
  • Try to follow a healthy diet, and get some exercise and plenty of rest – try to avoid becoming over tired
  • Keeping your mind active may help – for example, doing crosswords, sudoku and puzzles”

More Reading

Cognitive Changes After Cancer Treatment
Cognitive Thinking
Cognitive Disorders And Memory Loss In People With Cancer
Chemo Brain: Cognitive Problems May Occur Even Before A Cancer Patient Undergoes Chemotherapy, Study Finds


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