Chemo Brain: What to Do When Your Brain Won't Stop "Buffering"

Posted: September 15, 2020


Mental Health






Cancer treatment can cause something called chemo brain (and it kind of sucks). Have you experienced it? 

Do you feel like you’re losing your mind after treatment? You’re not imagining things. Chemotherapy-related cognitive impairment (aka chemo brain) affects the vast majority of people who have had cancer, and it’s no walk in the park. It’s more like…. A walk into the kitchen and forgetting what you wanted by the time you even get there. ::facepalm::

What is chemo brain like?

Besides general forgetfulness, you might also experience: 

  • Mental fogginess 

  • Inability to multitask 

  • Anxiety

  • Slowed thinking 

  • Difficulty learning new things 

  • Trouble finding words, dates, and names 

  • Frequent “spacing out” during seemingly simple activities, like reading or talking

Some people compare it to the “baby brain” many women experience in early motherhood. It can be frustrating and even scary when your mind doesn’t work the way it used to. 

Is chemo brain really caused by chemotherapy? 

Once upon a time, scientists believed that the cognitive difficulties so many cancer patients experience were caused by depression. (After all, the symptoms overlap.) Recently, medical researchers developed a deeper understanding of the impact chemotherapy drugs have on the brain. Although mental health is a concern for many of us, it’s more likely that cancer treatment drugs are to blame for the chemo brain phenomenon. 

For example, one study found that the common chemo drug methotrexate interferes with myelin plasticity, a process critical for learning and memory. With over 20 years of research on the matter under her belt, Michelle Monje calls chemo brain “plasticity interrupted.” Exactly which chemotherapy drugs interfere with brain function over time -- and how severely -- is still being studied, but one thing’s for sure: chemo brain really is triggered by chemotherapy.

Want the good news?

In a recent interview, Monje said, “I think it can be reversed. I’m very hopeful that we’ll be able to truly treat and repair the damage caused by our necessary but toxic cancer therapies.” Multiple methods of rejuvenating the brain and reversing the damage caused by chemotherapy medications are in the works.

Wondering how you can strengthen your mental health to combat chemo brain? Here are some hacks we’ve heard about: 

Talking to your Doctor

It’s such a simple thing, but it bears repeating. Please talk to your doctor about any cognitive problems you experience during or after chemotherapy. They can help you rule out other causes for the confusion. It’s also possible that your doctor may prescribe neurostimulants or anti-aging drugs to help counteract the effects of chemo brain. If you’re already involved in a post cancer rehab program, consider asking whether cognitive rehabilitation is an option to support your mental health alongside your physical health.

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