Chemo brain is a common term used by cancer survivors to describe thinking and memory problems that can occur after cancer treatment. Chemo brain can also be called chemo fog, chemotherapy-related cognitive impairment or cognitive dysfunction.
Though chemo brain is a widely used term, it's misleading. It's unlikely that chemotherapy is the sole cause of concentration and memory problems in cancer survivors. Researchers are working to understand the memory changes that people with cancer experience.
Despite the many questions, it's clear that the memory problems commonly called chemo brain can be a frustrating and debilitating side effect of cancer and its treatment. More study is needed to understand this condition.
Signs and symptoms of chemo brain may include the following:
- Being unusually disorganized
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty finding the right word
- Difficulty learning new skills
- Difficulty multitasking
- Feeling of mental fogginess
- Short attention span
- Short-term memory problems
- Taking longer than usual to complete routine tasks
- Trouble with verbal memory, such as remembering a conversation
- Trouble with visual memory, such as recalling an image or list of words
When to see a doctor
If you experience troubling memory or thinking problems, make an appointment with your doctor. Keep a journal of your signs and symptoms so that your doctor can better understand how your memory problems are affecting your everyday life.
It's not clear what causes signs and symptoms of memory problems in cancer survivors.
Cancer-related causes could include:
- A cancer diagnosis can be quite stressful in itself and this can cause memory problems
- Certain cancers can produce chemicals that affect memory
- Hormone therapy
- Radiation therapy
- Stem cell transplant
Complications of cancer treatment
- Menopause or other hormonal changes (caused by cancer treatment)
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Sleep problems, such as insomnia
- Pain due to cancer treatments
Emotional reactions to cancer diagnosis and treatment
- Inherited susceptibility to chemo brain
- Medications for other cancer-related signs and symptoms, such as pain medications
- Recurrent cancer that has spread to the brain
Factors that may increase the risk of memory problems in cancer survivors include:
- Brain cancer
- Chemotherapy given directly to the central nervous system
- Chemotherapy combined with whole-brain radiation
- Higher doses of chemotherapy or radiation
- Radiation therapy to the brain
- Younger age at time of cancer diagnosis and treatment
- Increasing age
The severity and duration of the symptoms sometimes described as chemo brain differ from person to person. Some cancer survivors may return to work, but find tasks take extra concentration or time. Others will be unable to return to work.
If you experience severe memory or concentration problems that make it difficult to do your job, tell your doctor. You may be referred to an occupational therapist, who can help you adjust to your current job or identify your strengths so that you may find a new job.
In rare cases, people with memory and concentration problems are unable to work and must apply for disability benefits. Ask your health care team for a referral to an oncology social worker or a similar professional who can help you understand your options.