Recover Overcoming Treatment Memory Loss
While you were on chemotherapy, or even after you finished treatment did you ever think that you were losing your mind -- literally?
If so, you probably have experienced situations where you just are not functioning the way you used to. Somehow, being able to have things easily roll off your tongue, think quickly on your feet or remember the smallest of things seem next to impossible.
It’s a very scary thing.
This phenomenon is known as “chemo brain” -- cognitive dysfunction. Chemo brain is a common side effect reported by many women who undergo chemotherapy treatment. It encompasses having difficulty doing a variety of things that require cognitive functions: short-term memory, concentration and focus -- even learning. The severity of chemo brain also increases with the intensity of the chemotherapy.
Nearly all breast cancer survivors who have had chemotherapy experience some degree of short-term memory loss and difficulty concentrating during and shortly after treatment. So there’s no need to feel like it’s only happening to you.
Abrupt menopause, which can often follow breast cancer treatment, may also leave you a bit “foggy-headed” in a more extreme way than natural menopause, which normally occurs more slowly.
In addition to short-term memory loss, the mental fogginess that you experience could affect your ability to retrieve words, concentrate, process numbers, follow instructions, multitask and set priorities.
In August 2009, New York Times Jane E. Brody wrote an article called “The Fog That Follows Chemotherapy”, about short-term problems with memory and concentration that cancer patients experience. Brody wrote that, “Women who wind up having chemo brain are not able to perform as well at their jobs. . . . They end up being under underemployed, or unemployed, because of this, some of who are single mothers, or single women, period, the sole support in their families. Without any kind of safety net, they really wind up in economic trouble."
This adds more stress to the already challenging situation of either dealing with or recovering from breast cancer treatment, and can complicate their lives even more.
Believe or not, until recently, oncologists would discount or trivialize chemo brain, making patients think that it was just their imaginations. Dr. Daniel Silverman, a cancer researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, studies the cognitive side effects of chemotherapy and says, "Now there's enough literature, even if it's controversial, that not mentioning experiencing chemo brain as a possibility is either ignorant or an evasion of professional duty."
Dr. Silverman’s book, “Your Brain After Chemo: A Practical Guide to Lifting the Fog and Getting Back Your Focus,” helps to improve memory and focus. It offers an invaluable 9-step program to help keep your brain sharp and overcome the effects of chemotherapy.
Also, in addition to Dr. Silverman’s book, there is another one entitled “Chemobrain: How Cancer Therapies Can Affect Your Mind” (Prometheus Books), by Ellen Clegg, an editor at The Boston Globe.
So, how can you remedy chemo brain?
Dr. Silverman suggests adopting the following strategies:
Prioritize. Because multitasking can be overwhelming to people with chemo brain, it helps to list tasks in order of their importance and concentrate on one at a time.
Develop routines. Prepare the night before for the next day. Review your calendar, lay out clothes, pack your briefcase, perhaps even set up breakfast and prepare a brown-bag lunch. Take medications and exercise at the same time each day.
Rehearse. On the way to a meeting where you will have to be on top of your game, visualize the room or the people who will be there and practice what you will say.
Rely on more than one sense. Try to link people and places with their scents, tastes, textures or unusual characteristics. Maybe Henry always wears a hat, or Rose’s front door is red.
Use a notebook to record information. My surroundings are covered with sticky notes, and I search frantically for something I know I wrote down somewhere. Both authors suggest a using single notebook so that everything is in one place, dating the pages as you use them. They say that this frees your desk and your mind from clutter.
Use a day planner. Write down all appointments immediately, with times, places and contact phone numbers. If you spend most of the day at a computer, you can use the calendar feature that alerts you to appointments. As a backup, I record things on a wall calendar and keep a paper tickle file, but this works well only if you check it regularly.
Leave messages for yourself. If you have voice mail or an answering machine, you can use it to remind yourself of appointments or tasks you have to do. But again, this works only if you check it regularly.
Get adequate rest. Even without chemo brain, fatigue is a memory destroyer. Don’t skimp on sleep, and when you feel your brain dragging, take a 20-minute nap. Stress impairs brain function, so practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga can be helpful ways to boost your focus and concentration.
In addition, certain supplements, such as Vitamin B, Omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants, have shown success in helping to improve memory and brain function. You can find these products in our Partner Shopping section.
Here are some resources that might help you better understand how to overcome memory loss from chemotherapy treatment:
Network of Strength article on Memory Loss/Chemobrain
“The Fog That Follows Chemotherapy”,
Chemobrain: How Cancer Therapies Can Affect Your Mind
For more information on addressing memory loss, go to Breast Cancer Partner’s Resources. You can also share your knowledge and success with other survivors in our Partner Forum or at Survivor Tips.