Thursday, January 28, 2010

Chemo Brain (Brain Fog)

I attended a seminar on chemo brain, which the speaker (Dr. Heather Palmer) prefers to call brain fog, since they're not sure if its caused by the chemo, or the cancer, or the drugs you take for the side effects of chemo, or what. Based on different studies she showed us, she estimates it to affect over 50% of cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy, and can last up to 5 years, but does tend to get better over time.

The tips here are for anyone, since 'brain fog' can be caused by other life events as well (including aging).

It was interesting that they say fatigue (which is very common among people finished treatment) can be partly caused by the brain working so hard on normal daily tasks.

The symptoms include:
- memory problems
- verbal/written skills - not using the right words
- attention & concentration (could be fatigue causing this)
- problems with executive functions are very typical for cancer patients - this includes the higher thinking skills incluing planning, mental calculations, organizing, multi-tasking. Oh oh!
- motor function & co-ordination (could be the numb feet or fingers causing some of this)
- spatial skills - missing the table when putting a cup down, and bumping into things. Interesting for me, because I've noticed a slight problem with depth perception when walking down stairs.

Most of her talk focused on a program she uses, called Maximum Capacity Approach .

Here are the tips I picked up:
First, document your mistakes (and why, what time, what could have prevented it). Review your list and look for patterns. Do you just forget everything your husband says? Are you bumping into things more in the evenings?

When you hear a name or something you want to remember, do something that pushes it deeper into memory (make a rhyme or put it into a sentence)

Keep lists, use daily planners.

Use your existing routines & habits - for example, always put your keys in the same place; if you need to remember to take medicine in the morning and you're a coffee drinker, put the meds in your coffee cup.

Use external self talk - "I'm going downstairs to get..."

Try to remain in a 'present minded' state vs absent-minded. Always know what you're doing and why, don't let yourself get easily distracted. The tips for this were to stop and take a second when you finish something before you start something else - example was you were sitting doing something, the phone rings, and when you finish the call, don't just wander off and do something else, stop and think (and hopefully remember you had been sitting doing something when the phone rang). Also, make sure you are staying on task - example was you went to check your e-mail and now you find you are on the internet reading about polar bears.

Minimize unnecessary multi-tasking.

Slow down a notch.

Stay mentally & physically active.

It was an interesting evening, always good to be around people with similar things going on. Personally, I've experienced most of the above symptoms, but I've felt much 'clearer' over the last couple of weeks - the fog is beginning to lift.


  1. Very good post. I experienced minimal chemo brain which has pretty much disappeared in the six months post-chemo. I took no pain killers, no sleep meds, nothing except the chemo (carbo/taxol). I'd say my chemo brain was minimal.

  2. Having school to keep me focused, I have to say that I'm actually doing better, as far as thinking and remembering.

  3. I had chemo brain with FEC and I thoughtthat I was loosing my mid, did not seem to have it with taxotere, but 4 weeks after chemo has ended it seems to be coming back with a vengence. However, I do think that I am trying to do too much and am quite fatigued. I have found this blog entry enlightening.

  4. Sorry about last post - it looks like I am loosing my mind - proof reading would help.

  5. Beth, thank you so much for sharing this information it was a revelation for me. This is why I am so clumbsy these days, I have lost count of the breakages and silly accidents!

    I can't multi task anymore and if I am overloaded with too much information I literally feel as though my head hurts!

    Phew! at least there is a reason!

  6. I have these issues... thanks for being so defined...

  7. I am one year post-chemo, and still having major problems with fatigue and cognitive impairments, especially working memory and multitasking. I recently started having depth perception problems, mainly when there is a lot of information to process.

    Like Janilzi, I did okay through chemo, and only got hammered about 3 weeks after my last treatment. Haven't had a normal day physically or mentally in the year since. The supplements from the book "The Mood Cure" have helped significantly. I started a low-carb diet 2 weeks ago, and that is helping my energy a bunch also, and I think decreasing the brain fog a bit.

    Thanks for posting this information. It's nice to know that my exciting new symptoms are *probably* nothing to worry about. And best of luck with your rapid and complete recovery!