Studies show that up to seven in 10 patients who undergo chemotherapy suffer from chemo brain, a condition that makes it hard for them to concentrate or remember things. Also known as chemo fog, these unwanted side effects last from weeks to years, and it is still unclear if it contributes to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, chemo brain likely results from several causes, including treatment, overall health, genetic predisposition and illness-related complications.
What Causes Chemo Brain?
While researchers agree that cancer patients develop cognitive dysfunction, they don’t know why. Four factors contribute to this condition:
- Stress caused by the illness, chemicals released by some types of tumors, and brain tumors
- Treatments, such as bone marrow transplants, radiation and immunotherapy
- Complications like anemia, fatigue or inflammation
- Other medical conditions, medications and genetic predisposition
People who have brain involvement or high doses of radiation or chemotherapy are more likely to experience brain fog. It may also be worse in children and senior citizens.
How Can Caregivers Help?
The word “caregiver” usually refers to unpaid partners, family or friends who take care of someone else, but it may also apply to caregiving professionals who perform specific tasks. Caregivers serve in various roles during the illness and play an important part in the patient’s outlook and recovery. Because more treatments are now being done in outpatient centers, they have a wider range of responsibilities than ever.
Caregivers serve as part of a team that works together to make sure the patient gets a healthy diet, the right medications, and emotional support. It is often their job to stay in touch with medical professionals, report side effects of medications, or manage daily tasks, such as housecleaning and personal hygiene. Besides solving problems, arranging rides to appointments, and preparing meals, they monitor patients for signs of depression, insomnia and other issues. Caregivers can negatively or positively influence a patient’s attitude and mood.
Some kinds of cancer require more care than others. For conditions like lung cancer or mesothelioma, a rare tumor caused by exposure to asbestos, patients may need special equipment, such as oxygen tanks, that require specific training and skills for caregivers. People with chemo brain not only have the usual challenges of their illnesses, but they may also become frustrated or depressed because their brains are working differently. Caregivers are usually the ones who recognize the problem and bring it to the attention of the medical team.
What Can Patients Do?
People who have chemo brain may experience forgetfulness, lack of concentration, inability to recall names or difficulty with multitasking. Writing in a journal every day can pinpoint triggers and serve as a reminder of what works and what doesn’t. Practices, such as the ones below, help with ordinary memory loss, but they also apply to chemo brain:
- Making lists, using a planner, and checking off daily chores
- Staying active mentally with activities like video games or crossword puzzles
- Getting plenty of sleep
- Keeping a peaceful environment
- Eating healthy food and getting exercise
- Staying organized
- Repeating or writing down information to make remembering easier
- Letting caregivers and loved ones know what to expect
- Talking to social workers or medical providers
- Practicing self-compassion
Although children and senior patients may be more likely to struggle with cognitive problems, the condition can affect anyone. Coping is usually easier when patients are well-informed and supported by a community of caring people. If more help is needed, oncology workers can usually offer suggestions and advice for overcoming chemo fog.
Article by Jeremy Shores