Chemo Brain: The foggy side effects of treatment


A growing topic amongst oncologists and cancer survivors revolves around one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy, more commonly known as “chemo brain”. Chemo Brain has been known to greatly affect some cancer survivors quality of life; even several years after kicking the disease to the curb.

According to the World Health Organisation, statistics indicate that number of new cancer cases is expected to rise by about 70% over the next 2 decades. This could account for an estimated 23.6 million new cases of cancer as soon as 2030[1].

Almost absolutely every cancer patient undergoes one or more of the following treatments: surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy. The aggressiveness of many patients’ oncology treatments requires a huge amount of mental and physical strength, family support, and a positive and hopeful approach to the day-to-day.  However, even after beating cancer, patients who have undergone chemotherapy can experience “Chemo Brain”.

During chemotherapy most patients experience memory loss and difficulty concentrating during the course of their treatment. However, according to the New York Times, about 15% of patients suffer prolonged effects of what is known medically as chemotherapy-induced cognitive impairment[2].

Studies have yet to determine exactly why some patients are affected while others are not; but the symptoms are practically consistent for all of those affected. Chemo Brain is described as an impairment of cognitive and brain functions after receiving chemotherapy that can affect word retrieval, time-management, multi-tasking, memory, concentration, arithmetic and the ability to set priorities.

 “Recent studies that took other influences into account and analysed how patients’ brains worked before and after cancer treatment have shown that cognitive effects of chemotherapy are real and, for some, long-lasting.” – The New York Times

Many patients do not completely register the gravity of these side effects until they return to their routine and the cognitive impairment becomes very obvious.

A recent study conducted by Michelle C. Janelsins, an assistant professor of surgery in the Wilmot Cancer Institute at the University of Rochester Medical Centre in New York, compared a total of 581 female breast cancer patients and 364 healthy women – all who claimed to have had self-reported memory and thinking issues in the past[3]. Each woman took several Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy-Cognitive Function (FACT-Cog) tests in order to provide the data necessary for the analysis.

Researchers were able to detect a very meaningful raise in the percentage of woman whose FACT-Cog scores continued to significantly decline from before beginning chemotherapy to up to 1 year after. “36.5 percent of patients with breast cancer reported a decline in FACT-Cog scores compared with 13.6 percent of [the women who had not undergone chemotherapy].[4]

Although the exact cause of Chemo Brain is yet to be identified, there are several theories including the possible affects anticancer drugs directly have on the neurons as well as the treatment’s biochemical and anatomical effects on the brain. Dr. Monique Cherrier, research associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington and affiliate investigator with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center explains, “for a long time, we thought that these drugs did not cross the blood-brain barrier,” she said, “but there are studies now using animal models that show chemotherapy can cause cognitive deficits.”[5]

If a patient is experiencing the effects of long-term Chemo Brain it is important that they maintain a positive outlook in order to diminish a possible depression or heightened anxiety. Experts suggest that when carrying out an activity, patients should make a conscious effort to spend more time doing said task than they might have before undergoing chemotherapy. Allowing the time to retain more information will help your memory and your focus.

In order to ensure the mind is rested and maximum functionality, it is also recommendable to practice mindfulness activities like yoga or mediation. In addition, taking part in cognitive practices such as puzzles or math quizzes can help keep the mind alert. Physical exercise also has proven to increase memory and decision making abilities. Experts suggest doing mild to moderate activity if you are physically able.

Post-cancer, the road to long-term recovery and learning to deal with side effects is a long one. It is important to ask those around you for help and not be hard on yourself in order to avoid frustration. Recognising and focusing on personal strengths is key to a patient who experiencing chemo brain’s return to day-to-day life.


[1] Cancer Research UK

[2] The New York Times

[3] Medical News Today

[4] Medical News Today








Cancer Research UK

World Health Organisation

The New York Times

The Huffington Post



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