Managing Treatments

Coping With Chemo Brain: 10 Ways to Manage Your Symptoms

Coping with chemo brain can be frustrating and challenging part of cancer treatment. Here are tips for managing your symptoms.

Coping with chemo brain can be a frustrating and challenging part of cancer treatment. Maybe you can’t remember where you put your keys. Maybe you have trouble concentrating or feel like you process information a beat slower. Or maybe your mind just feels like it’s filled with fog.

It isn’t all in your head. Up to 75 percent of cancer patients experience some cognitive problems during cancer treatment, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Thirty-five percent experience issues after treatment is completed. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, here are some tips for coping with chemo brain and getting your life back on track.

1. Keep a Notebook

Write everything down — appointments, notes, medication schedule and to-dos. It may be helpful to record it all in a single notebook. This way, you will have everything in one place and won’t need to search for that scrap piece of paper or a stray sticky note.

2. Make It Routine

Everything has its place, so make sure to put it back where it belongs: Return keys, cell phone and mail to their designated spots. Pay your mortgage and bills on the same day each month (and note it in your calendar). Keep your grocery list in the same location. Make a checklist of all the things you need for leaving the house — close the windows, turn off the oven, grab your wallet — and keep it by the door. When you create a routine, it makes it easier to keep track of these important items so they don’t slip through the cracks. And feel free to use those extra sticky notes you now have to label the exact locations where you put things around your home.

3. Do One Thing at a Time

Multitasking can be overwhelming, even for those not experiencing chemo brain. When you try to do more than one thing at a time, it’s easy to get distracted, lose focus and forget something. Instead, stick with one task at a time, which may help you stay focused for longer. This can cut down on any mix-ups or mistakes.

4. Exercise Your Muscles

Moving your body can have a positive effect on both your body and mind. Plus, exercise is one of the best ways to bust stress, which can impact your memory, attention and physical healing. Exercise releases endorphins — your body’s feel-good chemicals that elevate your mood and relieve pain — and helps you feel more alert. Try a short walk outside.

5. Exercise Your Brain

Just like your muscles, your brain needs to be engaged in order to stay strong. Flexing your mental muscles may help keep your brain sharp. Try crossword puzzles, Sudoku, math games or a jigsaw puzzle. There are even video games designed to exercise your brain. They’re both fun and mentally stimulating.

6. Get Some Sleep

Especially when you’re coping with chemo brain, it’s important to get plenty of rest. Not only does rest help your body heal, but it helps your brain function better too. You feel more alert when you’re well rested, and sleep can improve memory function, according to Psychology Today. Try to create a soothing bedtime routine, go to sleep early and take naps if you need to.

7. Rest and Relax

Stress can do a number on your memory and cognitive function. If you’re coping with chemo brain, it’s a good idea to keep your stress levels at bay. Meditation not only reduce stress, but can help with attention and focus as well. If quiet meditation doesn’t work for you, try gentle yoga or a walking meditation.

8. Keep a Journal

Research, according to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, has found that journaling and expressive writing can help improve working memory, and the Journal of Clinical Oncology reports it can help cognitive function. Plus, research published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists shows that journaling has long-term physical and psychological benefits.

9. Ask for Help

Coping with chemo brain can be a lot to handle on your own. Tell your family and friends what you’re going through and ask for help. They can be an important source of support and encouragement.

10. Keep Track of Your Symptoms

As you go through your day, take note of your symptoms and write them down so you can share this information with your doctor at your next appointment. If you experience serious cognitive problems, consult your healthcare provider.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for chemo brain, these tips can help you alleviate and manage your symptoms.

You don't have to go it alone. Your team at UVA Cancer Center is here to provide the support you need to look and feel your best during treatment.

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Christine Yu