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Understanding and managing ‘chemo brain’

Wednesday 13 February, 2019
Naveena, Cancer Connect volunteer and cancer survivor, is no stranger to 'chemo brain'.


How many times do you have a word on the tip of your tongue and can't find it?

For people with cancer this can be more than just a one-off occurrence, with many noticing changes in the way that they think and remember information. They may feel scared, confused, frustrated or upset. This can affect their ability to manage at home, school or work, and can also affect their relationships with other people.

'Chemo brain', or cancer-related cognitive impairment is relatively common amongst people with cancer. Studies show that it can affect up to 3 in 4 people during treatment, about 1 in 3 people before treatment, and 1 in 3 after treatment.

What is it?

People with cancer often report problems with thinking and memory. While the exact causes of chemo brain are unknown, studies suggest that it can be linked to side effects of cancer treatment, emotions or inflammation.

Some people notice small changes, but for others the effects can be more obvious:

• a feeling of mental “fogginess” or sluggishness

• difficulty concentrating or focusing

• memory changes (forgetting names, dates, words and things you would usually recall)

• difficulty finding words during conversations

• finding it hard to multi-task

• difficulty problem-solving or learning new skills.

"I used to be able to recall and process things quickly. What used to take me five minutes now takes me twenty or thirty. I’ve also found it difficult to go back to my old job. It’s frustrating. I’ve had to adopt ways of getting around it."

 - Naveena, cancer survivor and Cancer Connect volunteer

Managing thinking and memory changes

Adjust your daily routine

  • Keep a to-do list and note how you’re feeling.
  • Set reminders in your smartphone that remind you to check your to-do list.
  • Focus on one thing at a time – try not to multi-task.
  • Pick a specific place to put objects like your keys or phone.
  • Pace yourself and include rest breaks to recharge after mentally demanding tasks.
  • Try and do tasks that require a bit more focus when you feel you are fresher.

Involve other people

  • If you feel comfortable, tell family, friends and colleagues what’s going on – this can prevent misunderstandings.
  • Speak to your employer about reassigning your tasks or deadlines.
  • Take a support person to appointments or treatment.
  • Talk to your healthcare team about how you are feeling – they can assess if you have other concerns such as depression.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

  • Eat healthy, nutritious foods.
  • Aim to get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night and rest when tired.
  • Do some physical exercise or stretching to improve your mood and energy levels. Consider working with an exercise physiologist to incorporate exercise into your lifestyle.
  • Try to minimise stressful activities as much as possible.
  • Meditation or relaxation to reduce stress can help

Improve your thinking and memory

  • During conversation, focus carefully and repeat what has been said to you.
  • Add meaning to information you need to remember, e.g. picture someone called Robyn with a robin bird.
  • Break down new information into smaller chunks.
  • Try doing something creative, like art or crafts.

“Be kind to yourself and utilise whatever resources you can. Whether that’s technological or using your family and friends. Don’t be ashamed of asking for help because it’s not your fault,”

 - Naveena

If you have immediate concerns regarding how cancer may be affecting your ability to think, speak to your healthcare team. They can help you develop strategies to manage cognitive impairment.

For more information on cognitive changes and cancer, download our free guide Understanding changes in thinking and memory or call our cancer nurses on 13 11 20.

Support services like this are 100% funded by Cancer Council supporters. Thank you. You’ve made a real difference to Victorians impacted by cancer.

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