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What Are the Symptoms of Chemobrain?

CancerWise - April 2008


By Dawn Dorsey

Although “chemobrain” or “chemofog” is reported by a majority of people who receive cancer treatment, it often goes unrecognized and untreated.

Medically known as cognitive dysfunction, which means difficulty efficiently processing information, chemobrain is a legitimate, diagnosable condition that usually is covered by health insurance. It may be caused by cancer, cancer treatment or secondary medical conditions, such as anemia.

Learn the symptoms of chemobrain

“Cancer patients with cognitive dysfunction often complain of memory disturbance,” says Christina Meyers, Ph.D., a professor in M. D. Anderson’s Department of Neuro-Oncology.

People with chemobrain may:

  • Have difficulty multi-tasking
  • Confuse dates and appointments
  • Misplace objects
  • Forget details of recent events or conversations
  • Fumble for the right word or phrase
  • Have difficulty focusing on one task
  • Feel mentally “slower” than before

Chemobrain was studied recently in breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy at M. D. Anderson, Meyers says.

Study results showed that:

  • 33% had cognitive dysfunction before treatment
  • 61% had problems three weeks after treatment began
  • 50% had improved one year after treatment ended

What is the treatment for chemobrain?

Fatigue, pain, sleep disturbance and depression can make chemobrain worse, and symptoms may last long after treatment ends. However, professional guidance and certain tools can help patients cope with cognitive issues.

“A multidisciplinary assessment, which includes evaluation and laboratory studies to rule out potentially reversible causes of cognitive problems, is optimal,” Meyers says. “Patients with cognitive symptoms may be referred to a neuropsychologist for evaluation and intervention.”

People experiencing chemobrain might want to:

  • Rely on memory aids such as:
    • Planners
    • Reminders
    • Lists
  • Minimize distractions
  • Treat fatigue and sleep problems
  • Manage depression and anxiety

Recent studies have shown the drug methylphenidate (Ritalin®) may be an effective tool in treating cognitive dysfunction.

Does insurance pay for treatment?

Neuropsychological evaluations are considered medical procedures and are covered by insurance, Meyers says.

“Sometimes, when insurance carriers see the word 'psych' they may categorize the claim as a mental health benefit and deny the claim,” she says. “But a letter of appeal can be written by the neuropsychologist to get it covered.”

Cancer patients may be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act to receive reasonable accommodations at work.


© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center