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Chemo Brain Fog - A Side Effect of Chemotherapy

Updated on October 12, 2015

Copyright 2011, Kris Heeter Ph.D.

Doctors have known for years that cancer radiation treatments to the brain have the ability to cause cognitive memory and thinking problems.

In recent years, similar problems have been cited by patients during and after chemotherapy - a phenomenon often referred to as chemotherapy brain fog - aka “chemobrain” or “chemofog”.

The term chemobrain was first coined after it was identified in breast cancer survivors. After years of research, survivors of other cancers have described similar symptoms.

It’s estimated that chemotherapy may affect the cognitive brain function in as many as 75% percent of cancer patients.

Cognitive changes can include difficulties with memory, concentration, multi-tasking, and planning abilities. These changes typically occur during the course of chemotherapy treatment and can continue in at least 20 percent of survivors after treatment has been concluded.

Researchers from the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center recently concluded that:

“We can no longer deny the existence of this long-term effect of cancer treatment".

Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy may increase inflammation and it may linger even long after treatment ends.


Brain abnormalities found during chemotherapy

Studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have identified physical brain changes in patients treated with chemotherapy. MRI has revealed that these changes are abnormalities.

The brain is made up of “white matter” and “gray matter” Gray matter is part of the central nervous system and is made up of neurons, dendrites and capillaries. The gray matter includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, and sensory perception.

White matter is composed of axons coated in myelin (a protective insulation) and it controls the signals that neurons share. It coordinates how well the regions of the brain work in concert.

Small microscopic changes affect these connections in white brain matter. A recent study just published (December, 2011) in the Journal of Clinical Oncology identifies these physical abnormalities as changes that affect the fibers that connect neurons to the brain.

These changes can persist beyond the duration of the chemotherapy. For most patients, they diminish over time but, in some cases, these abnormalities can still be found five years after treatment.

Have you or a loved one suffered from the chemo "fog"?

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Coping with the chemo "fog"

So now what? How does one cope and can anything be done to alleviate these side affects?

The side affects aren't the same for all patients. However, there are some simple steps that the American Cancer Society suggests that patients take during and after treatment to minimize the impact and stress that these changes in brain function have:

  • Keep appointments and "to do" lists organized in one place (e.g. daily planner)
  • Create and follow daily routines
  • Focus on one thing at time (don't try to multi-task)
  • Take educational classes and do word puzzles to exercise the brain
  • Get plenty of rest and sleep
  • Get regular exercise
  • Eat your veggies - they are packed with nutrients that lower inflammation
  • Ask for help when you need it
  • Keep a diary - track your memory problems and share with your caregivers
  • Try to relax and don't let these problems get to you

In the meantime, now that this has been recognized and documented as physical changes in the brain, researchers will continue to study and find ways to reduce these abnormalities. Doctors do stress that the benefits of chemo, right now, outweigh the cognitive side effects.

Share your thoughts...

If you found this article useful, let us know!

And if you or a loved one has suffered these side effects, you are encouraged to share, in the comments section below, what steps were taken to alleviate "the fog".


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    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @healthylife2 - thanks for adding your experience! I'm glad to hear that the side effect did not last for you. I've had some say it took a few years to completely clear. And I'm sure that the experience will vary depending upon a person's genetic make-up and the chemo drug or cocktail being used. There's so many variables!

    • healthylife2 profile image

      Healthy Life 5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      This was a useful article and explains yet one more thing that cancer patients often have to deal with. I definitely experienced chemo fog and kept a list next to the bed and wrote everything down. I also found the whole experience stressful so it was difficult to know if it was stress or chemo "fog".Fortunately this side effect did not last.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      This is important info for caregivers and friends of those suffering with chemo side effects to know. Thanks much for an important and helpful hub.

    • roxanne459 profile image

      Roxanne Lewis 5 years ago from Washington

      Thank you for posting this and giving us all a better understanding of what happens. Voted Up and Shared! I have no doubt that you can help many people.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @alocsin - you are welcome! I've seen friends go through this and always just thought it was general fatigue but clearly there are these an underlying physical changes in the brain. I shared this with a friend who had it and she was relieved to know that there was a medical explanation.

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Thanks for explaining this because it helps me understand what friends and relatives who have undergone chemotherapy go through. Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @lehiefler - thanks for stopping by. I hope she has a speedy recovery!!

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      I have a friend who just finished her last round of chemo two weeks ago. She is looking forward to coming out of the fog and exhaustion - great advice for combating the nasty side effects of chemotherapy!

    • profile image

      KatrineDalMonte 5 years ago

      A great informative article, Kris. Have voted up. So great to learn something new!

    • picklesandrufus profile image

      picklesandrufus 6 years ago from Virginia Beach, Va

      very informative hub. I am a cancer survivor and know first hand what chemo brain is about. I now have a new normal and use many of the techniques you listed. thanks!

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @kelleyward - thanks for stopping by and sharing. I hope you mom is doing well and hopefully the chemobrain side effects have diminished!

    • profile image

      kelleyward 6 years ago

      My mOm experience this last year during chemo. Thanks for the well researched article. I'll send it to her so she can share it!

    • Uninvited Writer profile image

      Susan Keeping 6 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      I had chemo brain for a long time after I went through chemotherapy. I think I'm over it now :)

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 6 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      Also read up on Bluegreen Algae which has every nutrient except Vitamin D which you can get from supplementing or exposure to the sun. But make sure it is truly good quality. The body will use its constituents first where they are most needed. We have had some customers who felt they had experienced "nothing" until they stopped and then felt the difference it had been making for them.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @Raul - I'm glad to hear the juices have helped. Organic juices like that are full of beneficial nutrients that the body can use to fight. Thanks for sharing!

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @sunshine65 - thanks so much for sharing your mom's experience. I am sorry for your loss. It's such a difficult disease to battle.

    • Raul Gallego profile image

      Raul Gallego 6 years ago from r Los Angeles, California

      My wife is 72 yrs. and is a survivor. She developed Breast Cancer 15yrs. ago and is now on her fourth chemo, but in pill form, she has an aggressive cancer that has spread to different areas. I have been for many years making the so-called cancer juices which i know have helped. I am know giving her Organic Wheat Grass--Follow directions , mix and drink--Remember our bodies are healthy, were just fighting an affliction.

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 6 years ago from Orlando, FL

      My mom was a champ with her chemo treatments, even when her oncologist administered double the normal dosage which was a horrible experience. She made her way through chemo, but eventually lost the fight. She often mentioned the chemo fog, but was able to deal with it. Informative hub.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @Alecia - thanks for the comments. I'm glad to hear she is recovering. Eating the right foods and exercising. There's been some great research in both fields showing how much diet and exercise can influence the risk of recurrence and survival rates.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      I really enjoyed this hub. My mom's a survivor and has had to realign her life significantly but thankfully as she recovered she made good decisions such as eating better and exercising more. I think cancer and chemotherapy are some of the most challenging things to go through but with the right attitude, it's easier to navigate. Great information!