Chemo Brain

I’m surprised I never had a post on this blog talking about chemo brain. It can be a major issue for some cancer patients, and it did affect me last time. It actually feels like more of an issue this time, maybe because I’m getting two chemo agents or because the radiation field is larger than last time.


From The Mayo Clinic:

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.

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:

  • Being unusually disorganized
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty finding the right word
  • Difficulty learning new skills
  • Difficulty multitasking
  • Fatigue
  • 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

It’s hard to describe how chemo brain feels. For me, it’s like being in a kind of fog that dulls all thoughts. It doesn’t feel like depression, although it certainly can be depressing because it even dulls thoughts like “interest” and “attention.” It makes it very difficult to focus on anything for more than around 45 minutes to an hour. This includes even passive activities like watching TV or movies.

Yes, it even includes games although with games I can go up to two hours without losing focus.

Combined with the fatigue from chemoradiation, it can be especially brutal because you’re tired but you can’t sleep, and on top of that you can’t get your mind to focus on anything. It makes the treatment period feel like a blur of sameness, and accentuates the feeling that you’re stuck in this mode “forever.” I suspect that feeling is part of why so many cancer patients have calendars counting down to the end of treatments. You have to find ways to break out of the blur.


I alternate between doing work when I have even a small amount of focus (whatever the hour… make hay while the sun shines! … or doesn’t shine, since in many cases those moments are pre-dawn), playing Dragon Age: Inquisition or Rock Band 4 or Guild Wars 2, coloring in some adult zen coloring books gifted by generous friends, doing Zentangles (which I have been neglecting lately) or watching TV with Charlie. I’m starting to spend more time in my office just to break up laptop time in my recliner. I’d love to play some VR and Elite but those seem like poor choices when I’m fighting off chemo nausea.

If you have a friend or loved one going through cancer, please keep chemo brain in mind. Cut them some slack if they seem slow or confused at times. If they haven’t heard of chemo brain, give them the information. If you don’t know what’s causing the issues, you think you’re just being wimpy or you can just focus and get over it. Once you understand it’s a part of the process, it’s easier to forgive yourself and focus on ways to compensate instead.

Now I think it’s time for some Rock Band 4!

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