Memory Loss and Cognitive Function

aka "Chemo Brain"

“Chemo brain” is a commonly used term by cancer patients to describe the mental lapses that many of them experience before, during and after cancer treatment. These issues in thinking and concentrating, as well as memory loss, are forms of cognitive dysfunction that can create a great deal of distress for cancer patients.

What Causes Chemo Brain?

In spite of being called “chemo brain,” no one is entirely sure what causes this loss in mental sharpness, as patients often experience a loss of cognitive function even before starting chemotherapy. At this time, researchers suspect these mental lapses result from a number of factors, including stress, depression, reactions to chemotherapy and other medications, and even age, as some studies have shown that older women tend to have more cognitive problems after chemotherapy than younger women. The good news is that most cancer survivors report that the symptoms do go away over time.

"Chemo Brain" Symptoms:

  • Inability to remember certain things; memory lapses even on things one usually can recall; trouble finding the right word.
  • Trouble finishing tasks.
  • Trouble learning new skills.
  • Trouble concentrating, lack of focus, short attention span, "spacing out."
  • Trouble multitasking, being unable to do more than one thing at a time.
  • Taking longer to finish things, being more disorganized, slower thinking and processing.

How To Deal with Chemo Brain:

  • Use a pillbox to keep track of medications.
  • Ask someone on your medical team for help in keeping track of clinic visits.
  • Pick a specific place for lost items and put them there every time.
  • Make a detailed plan. Keep everything in one place, including appointments, schedules, "to do" lists, contact information and even information, such as movies you’d like to see in it. A smart phone is a handy place to do that.
  • Do your "heavy thinking" during the time of day you feel best.
  • Train your brain. Stimulating your brain with new knowledge has been shown to improve cognitive function. Try doing brain teasers, such as puzzles or learning a new language.
  • Don't try to multi-task.
  • Set up and follow routines.
  • Make sure you eat healthy, exercise and rest enough. All help your body and some studies have shown that eating vegetables is linked to maintaining brain power as people age.
  • Ask for help when you need it.

When Do You Need To Seek Help?

Always keep your doctor or health care team informed of any issues you are having, including cognitive ones. Keep a journal of your cognitive lapses and symptoms, including times of day when issues occur, so your doctor can better understand and help alleviate these problems.

Useful Websites:


American Cancer Society/Chemo Brain

Mayo Clinic/Chemo Brain

MD Anderson/Chemo Brain

Cancer.Net/Attention, Thinking or Memory Problems

Louisiana's Young Breast Cancer Survivor Network

Young women with breast cancer face unique issues. And in the South, there are more young women overall facing breast cancer. In Louisiana, young African-American women are significantly more likely to suffer from breast cancer.

That is why SurviveDAT is here. Part of the Gulf States Young Breast Cancer Survivor Network, SurviveDAT's mission is to help improve the quality of life for young breast cancer survivors, as well as their family and friends, by providing continuing resources and support.

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