12 Ways to Cope With "Chemo Brain"

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Chemo brain: frustrating but real

The chemicals used in chemotherapy are powerful -- strong enough to kill cancer cells. That's a good thing, but they also seem to have a little-understood effect on the brain, causing cognitive problems such as memory lapses and loss of concentration.

While it's tempting to think that these problems are all in the patient's mind, they're all too real, experts say. In fact, a study at the University of Rochester Medical Center found that more than 80 percent of people who receive chemotherapy for cancer report annoying memory and concentration problems that often linger for months, even after treatment is finished.

"This is one of the things cancer patients get most frustrated about, because it makes them feel like they're not themselves," says Gloria Nelson, a senior oncology social worker at Montefiore-Einstein Cancer Center in New York City. "They used to see themselves as competent and capable, and now they keep losing things or can't finish a book because they can't remember the page they just read."

How to help someone deal with chemo brain

Here are some things you and the person you're caring for can do to prevent chemo brain from interfering with his ability to carry out day-to-day tasks and stay on top of his life.

  1. Organize his home and car. Establish specific places to keep his keys, wallet, cell phone, and other important items. For example, you might place a hook near the front door where he can leave his keys when he enters. Don't move everything around, though, since keeping things in familiar places will help him remember where they are.
  2. Make lists. Have him keep a small pad of paper in his breast pocket -- or if it's a woman, in her purse -- and have him write down anything and everything he'll need to remember. He can make lists of medication schedules, things he needs to do that day, items he needs at the store, names he wants to remember, even where he parked his car.
  3. Use a calendar or organizer. Keep track of appointments, tasks, things to do, social commitments, and special days such as birthdays and anniversaries. If it's a wall calendar, hang it in a prominent place, perhaps on the refrigerator, and remind him to look at it often. If it's a personal organizer, he can carry it with him and then keep it by the phone or on the kitchen counter when he's at home, so he can remember to enter information. When he writes down an appointment, have him include pertinent information, such as the address and phone number.
  4. Leave reminder messages on his phone. You can use his answering machine or voicemail to remind him of appointments, events, and other information he needs to remember.
  5. Have conversations clear of distractions. When you need to talk to him about something you want him to remember, have the conversation in a quiet, uncrowded place to avoid distractions. Suggest that he make this a habit with others as well.
  6. Repeat information out loud. When the doctor or someone else gives you and the person you're caring for important information, have him repeat it so it's committed to memory. Suggest that he write down key points such as instructions and directions on his pad or personal organizer and say them out loud while doing so.
  7. Proofread everything he writes down. One way that the fuzzy thinking of chemo brain drives people crazy is that it causes them to make silly spelling and grammar mistakes, such as leaving out words. Have him proofread everything he writes, or offer to read it for him. You want it to be clear for others and to you if you need to refer to it later.
  8. Do one thing at a time. Talk to him about the dangers of multitasking, which is not a good strategy for those with chemo brain. If he can train himself to do one task at a time with complete focus, he's much more likely to complete it successfully and remember it afterward.
  9. Use memory cues. Memory experts say one of the best ways to commit something to memory is to use visual and auditory clues. If your family member keeps misplacing his cell phone, for example, he can train himself to pause and look at the phone where he's placed it on the kitchen counter and say to himself aloud, "I'm putting my phone on the kitchen counter."
  10. Put his brain to work. A fun way to boost memory is to do puzzles like Sudoku or crosswords or to learn something new. Suggest that he attend a lecture on a topic that interests him, take up a new hobby, or pull out his old Spanish or biology texts and brush up.
  11. Let people know about memory issues. Unless he's just too embarrassed, it can be helpful to tell family and friends that he's having memory issues. They can help with reminders and will be more understanding when something slips his mind.
  12. Get plenty of exercise and sleep. Deep sleep is essential for memory and concentration, and getting at least some physical activity each day will help him sleep better. If pain or other problems are interfering with his sleep, talk to his doctor about it.


Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio

over 2 years, said...

I was upset and frustrated when I wrote this about my chemo brain. Sorry. http://www.curetoday.com/community/barbara-tako/2015/09/chemo-brain-a-breast-cancer-survivors-commentary

almost 3 years, said...

I participated in drug trials using chemo twice. The second time it was combined with an antiviral. Alpha 2b, 10million units daily for 6 months was the type of chemo used. That was in 1993. I still have chemobrain & I know it's not going anywhere. I'll never be "normal" again. In fact it was so bad that I lost my job. I could not function in a high capacity & multi-task quickly & efficiently anymore. I struggled with this for months and finally left my job because I was making other peoples jobs harder & I couldn't stand that. Believe me..ww know our limitations & how we sound when we can't remember a word or something that we went to the store for. Tthe last thing I need is for someone to make me feel even less of a person with their condescending attitude. The best thing anyone can do for those of us that suffer from a loss in their cognitive function is to ask us if we need help with anything that day. In a truly helpful & caring way. Attitude is everything when dealing with this disability, both for the caregiver & the recipient.

over 3 years, said...

I am dealing with chemo brain/fog right now. It has been very hard to handle and at the very least scary. I'm sure it varies from person to person. But could someone tell me how long it may have lasted after treatments? I am currently having chemo weekly. I have been through two treatment phases before. One in 2011 and in 2013 and never experienced this. This is so frustrating, and has also brought on bouts of anxiety. Any insight greatly appreciated!

about 4 years, said...

Great Sight! Looking for a sight/group that covers "Care Givers" for Vulva Cancers During the past yr. I've become the care giver for my wife who is in stage 4 Vulvar cancer and has undergone four surgeries last yr . My wife is my sole-mate of 42 yrs. and I'm trying to understand what I need to do to support her. -AL

over 5 years, said...

My lung cancer is stage IV, inoperable and incurable. My chemo is designed to relieve symptoms (which it has done) and to prolong my life. I would gladly tolerate chemo brain (which I also have) if it meant I was going to live longer.

over 5 years, said...

I started doing chemo for NHL cancer in 08. To tell you the truth, I still have a chemo brain. My depression has worsen. I have all types of stomach problems. I was reading this week a lady in my age group cannot take just any type of anti depressants. I also read that I would need a anti depressant that had properties of one particular SSRI may make it a better choice than another for me. For example, if you have low energy, a more energizing SSRI. When choosing an anti depressant, your doctor will take into account your particular symptoms, what other health problems you have, what other medications you take and what has worked for you in the past. Sometimes a combination of antidepressants may be the best treatment choice. I'm thinking this could also help me with feeling and thinking better. I'm at a point in my life along with my other health problems to try anything to get to feeling better. I have days I worry about my cancer returning. It might be hidden deep in my mind. Let me say it is in there. I have a check up every 3 months and a yearly Pet/CT Scan..I would think it is normal to worry about this. I also read, that hidden worries will cause us to not to be able to think clearly, so, that is another reason I'm going to try some anti depressants. I lost my son in 2005, so I do grieve over his death. Then 6 months later I got a divorce. I then came down with fibromyalgia. I relocated to a new town. This has been too many changes for a Lady of my age. Plus, I'm raising my 13 years old Granddaughter. Who makes straight "A" at school. If I ask her how to spell a word, I have to hear it to the end on how dumb I am. She has no respect for me. She told me I have to earn her respect. I took her to a new psychiatrist, they took her off of a lot of her medicines. Getting to the entire thing of the chemo brain and cancer, I 'm starting to think my Doctor is right..my cancer was caused from stress like a lot of cancers are. Also, if a person is under stress, we can not even think on how to spell or write..So, it could be some of the chemo still causing our problems...but..it is stress too..."THINK ABOUT THIS"

over 5 years, said...

Every ONE of these things has affected me in one way or another and five years post chemo, most of them still cause problems. Some observations from the patient side...... I am acutely aware of my limitations. I hate the fact that I can no longer read a novel. I was a voracious reader. I hate the fact that I can't stay on task. I chirping bird will derail my efforts. Noise (like the music my daughter just decided to play on her laptop) distracts me. The first long term study on breast cancer patients was recently release. Twenty years out, many of us are still experiencing problems and it is from the "mild" chemo (using that term very loosely). I didn't read through all of the comments but yes, I agree.... use of s/he in this case is quite important since chemobrain in breast cancer patients seems to be the most widely documented. I also agree, YES, I need help with much of what is mentioned. I would be highly offended if my spouse began to treat me in the manner you suggest. I would prefer being ASKED. I'm still functioning at a very high level but I need help. I would like to be able to communicate where I would like assistance and what I would prefer to do on my own. These suggestions as worded here would make me feel like I am a 10 year old child and I can assure you, "stress" or "emotionally charged" situations only exacerbate the problems we experience. The act of VALIDATING that what we are dealing with is VERY REAL is the **single most important thing** our caregivers can do for us. Then, ASKING, "What things might I do to ease some of the daily burden?" would be great. Most of us already know. The tone of the suggestions read more condescending than they are helpful. Also..... I participated in a clinical study. The memory that is affected by chemobrain is called "working memory." As the brilliant researcher who evaluated me explained, "You can do crosswords or sodoku 24/7. They will do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to assist with this problem. Do them if you enjoy them, but do not expect to derive any benefit for this particular issue." Ditto learning a new language. We need to already have a foundation somewhere deep in our brains upon which to build in order to learn anything new. That's why many of us are able to read non-fiction books. In many cases we already have the story outline and the book is filling in the gaps. There is long term memory and short term memory.... and then, there is the memory that messes with most of us... "working memory" ... it's a whole other thing. Great list of problems. Perhaps not the greatest solutions for how a caregiver may help. That's just my two cents...... from the other side..... AnneMarie

over 6 years, said...

I totally disagree with #11 to tell them they are not remembering things. They are very sensitive as to how people see them and feel very self-conscious already, no need to confirm their doubts. My sister had brain surgery 5 years ago and still has short term memory loss, but I will never intimidate her by telling her she is not remembering things as she used to. She is proud of still being alive and believes she is mentally able to fight the further spreading of this Stage 3 cancer called Astrocytomo. She is a Hero to go through with what she has had to endure. She stays positive as much as she can.

over 6 years, said...

Lost much memory and concentration. Lots of problems before the treatments for the cancer so I was blaming those issues. Who knows..it's bad so maybe both.

over 6 years, said...

Hello mindgardener­, Thank you for your comment! We appreciate that you've taken the time to share this feedback with us. It's very helpful for us to know how caregivers and the public are responding to our site and the information and resources we offer. I've passed on your comments to our editorial team and product team for their consideration. Thanks again for sharing! -- Emily | Community Manager

over 6 years, said...


over 6 years, said...

After writing a long comment here, I forgot my Caring password (chemo brain?). By requesting the password, my Comment was erased. Can you fix the site so one can sign in without losing a Comment in progress? I like this site but for the 2nd time in 3 months I am offended by the patronizing tone the article is written in. It is written NOT to the person with chemo brain -- they do not have brain DAMAGE or Alzheimers that renders them incapable--but to their caregiver. PLEASE KNOW that for many people (like me), they are their own caregiver. AND NOT ALL OF US ARE MALE. PLEASE--write every other paragraph with SHE/HE. The content is ok but the patronizing is offensive, particularly for a site which purports to be caring for those with cancer. I have chemobrain and am a perfectly capable adult. If Caring.com is only for caregivers of male persons, and the site does not offer dignity in addressing people with cancer, I cannot be part of it.

almost 7 years, said...

Great ideas. Finished chemo 9 months ago. My brain function has greatly improved. Still get a bit foggy at times. This list surely will help me make a full brain recovery.

almost 7 years, said...

It is important for me to do one thing at a time and it is also essential for me to write things down or I will forget them.

almost 7 years, said...

My first chemo was in 1993 and I still have some of the effects. Seems to affect short term memory the most.

almost 7 years, said...

It is good to know that Chemo Brain is finally recognized as a usually long term side effect.

almost 7 years, said...

Chemo Brain - my legacy of 2005 forward is very simple - I still have the symptoms but not as dramatic as then. I have found that having a 'daily pocket scheduler' AND a "daily scheduler' for on the table or desk that I am now reinforcing what my appointments, commitments, etc., are and they both should compliment each other as well as others who come to visit can read or see what I have to do. I also have a Stenographer pad that I note - with bullets - wht functions I have done or accomplished throughout the day. This also allows me to be more direct in my daily diary. My exercising program has increased dramatically as well. This now takes charge of my strenous activity in lieu of looking from a chair and thinking of simply moving something from Point A to Point B. Before this exercise I would only be able to accomplish my brain doing all the work with no physical interfacing. That bothered me and gave me quite anxious moments. I am quite thrilled with my interjections of adjustments having gone through Stage 4, Chemo and radiation. Love who I am as the 'New Me." If ahyone reasponds to this please make sure you place a notation in the subjet line - "Chemo Brain (date) " Thank you or I will delete it as a spam. I also am available for speaker programs as well as advcate (confidential). Best Regards - CMarie