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Chemobrain

Chemobrain, formally known as cognitive dysfunction, is a symptom reported by many cancer patients. Chemobrain, or difficulty in efficiently processing information, is a legitimate, diagnosable condition that may be caused by chemotherapy treatment, the cancer itself, or secondary medical conditions such as anemia.

Always tell your doctor about any changes in your thinking. He or she may refer you to a neuropsychologist. Neuropsychological evaluations for chemobrain are considered medical procedures, not a mental health benefit, and as such are covered by health insurance. 

Symptoms of Chemobrain

  • Difficulty concentrating on a single task
  • Problems with short-term memory; forgetting details of recent events
  • Feeling mentally “slower” than usual
  • Confusing dates and appointments
  • Misplacing objects
  • Fumbling for the right word or phrase

These symptoms generally will fade after chemotherapy ends, but each patient is different. Some may take a year or more after treatment to feel normal again; others may never regain full cognitive function.

Treatment

Not many treatments for chemobrain currently exist, although some patients may find relief from stimulants such as Ritalin®, commonly used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Ritalin can help improve mental focus, concentration and stamina in cancer patients.

People can use the following coping strategies to minimize the effects of chemobrain:

Exercise: Even five minutes of mild to moderate activity may improve mental function.

Memory Aids: Using a notebook, planner or list to keep track of things as they come to mind. A small recorder can also come in handy.

Treat fatigue and sleep problems: these conditions can worsen chemobrain symptoms.

Manage depression and anxiety: easing stress and elevating mood can ease chemobrain symptoms.

Minimize distractions: Employers are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to make reasonable accommodations for health-related impairments such as chemobrain. A more soundproof environment, like an office or a cubicle in a different location can decrease distractions and improve concentration in the workplace.

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center