Breast Cancer Treatment: Coping With "Chemo Brain"

Breast cancer treatment can cause "chemo brain"; strategies for helping someone being treated for breast cancer cope with memory, concentration, and organization problems
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What you can do to help deal with chemo brain

The chemicals used in chemotherapy to treat breast cancer are powerful so they can kill cancer cells. That's a good thing, but they also 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.

To help a cancer patient prevent chemo brain from interfering with day-to-day tasks, first, help her get organized:

  • Create a system to aid her memory. Establish specific places to keep keys, wallet, cell phone, and other important items. For example, you might place a hook near the front door to place keys to the house. Keeping things in familiar places helps most people remember where things are.
  • Make lists. Encourage the person you're caring for to keep a small pad of paper in her breast pocket or purse -- and to write down anything and everything she'll need to remember. It helps to make lists of medication schedules, things to do that day, items needed at the store, important names, even where she parked the car.
  • 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, where it's hard to miss. If it's a personal organizer, she can carry it with her and then keep it by the phone or on the kitchen counter when she's at home, so she can remember to enter information. When she writes down an appointment, remind her to include pertinent information, such as the address and phone number.


Other ways to help a cancer patient deal with chemo brain

There are many other ways you can help the person you're caring for handle "chemo brain," the cognitive problems that cancer patients often have even months after chemotherapy.

  • Leave reminder messages on her phone. You can use her answering machine or voicemail to remind her of appointments, events, and other information she needs to recall.
  • Have conversations clear of distractions. When you need to talk about something you want her to remember, have the conversation in a quiet, uncrowded place to avoid distractions. Suggest that she make this a habit with others as well.
  • Repeat information out loud. When the doctor or someone else gives you and the person you're caring for important information, have her repeat it so it's committed to memory. Have her write down key points such as instructions and directions on her pad or personal organizer and say them out loud while doing so.
  • Proofread everything. 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 the cancer patient proofread everything she writes, or offer to read it for her.
  • Encourage her to do one thing at a time. Multitasking is not a good strategy for those with chemo brain. Doing one task at a time with complete focus means she'll be more likely to complete it successfully and remember it afterward.
  • Use memory cues. Memory experts say one of the best ways to commit something to memory is to use visual and auditory clues. If misplacing the cell phone is a problem, for example, she can train herself to pause and look at the phone where she's placed it on the kitchen counter and say to herself aloud, "I'm putting my phone on the kitchen counter."
  • Put her brain to work. A fun way to boost memory is to do puzzles like Sudoku or crosswords or to learn something new. Suggest that she attend a lecture on a topic that interests her, take up a new hobby, or pull out her old Spanish or biology texts and brush up.
  • Let people know about memory issues. Unless the person you're caring for is just too embarrassed, it can be helpful to tell family and friends that she's having memory issues. They can help with reminders and will be more understanding when something slips her mind.
  • Remind her to 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 her sleep better. Hormonal issues from declining estrogen levels can cause hot flashes and night sweats, which can seriously interrupt sleep.  If pain or hormonal problems are interfering with her sleep, have her talk to her 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