A Mother and her Two Daughters

21 February 2011

The Ongoing Perils of Chemo Brain

It’s been written about, discussed by many, and a topic of this blog on several occasions.  However, the other day I realized – I still suffer from chemo brain.

This is not fiction.  Chemo brain, sometimes called “chemo fog” is real.  It’s the much discussed, but poorly understood side effect of chemotherapy treatment – misunderstood by everyone who has NOT taken chemo.  For those of us who are chemo graduates – we understand it all too well. 

It’s been described as an inefficiency of certain cognitive functions related to cancer treatment – i.e. chemotherapy. The primary symptom is inefficient memory retrieval, specifically losing your train of thought, a mental block on words or names or numbers.  It can mean being distracted or having trouble multitasking.  There also seems to be a reduction in how much information a person can process at one time, similar to attention deficit disorder.  Those with chemo brain are slower to do things and it takes more mental effort to do almost everything.

The good news:  Reasoning, problem solving, basic skills and talent are not affected.

How has chemo brain affected me?  It’s usually words.  They are on the tip of my tongue.  I know what I want to say, it’s right there on the tip of my tongue.  Honestly!  I can almost feel the word, touch the word.  But I fail.  I have zero recall. 

Today I could not remember the name “mouthwash.”  I could only come up with dishwashing detergent.  As we all know, they are not the same.  

Last week I went completely brain dead trying to remember the last name of a longtime acquaintance.  His first name was easy.  I could see his face and knew everything else about him, but I could not remember his last name without the help of Tim.  He and a few others, especially work colleagues, have become like seeing-eye dogs for me, except they help me with my memory lapses. 

The other day I was introducing two friends – one who recently moved to Little Rock from Texas, an education specialist.  The other was a college friend who’s returned home from Florida, taking a new position at the UAMS Center on Aging.  As I tried to give some background about each of them to the other, I had a complete memory lapse – completely lost my train of thought. I could not remember Dennie’s specialty, which is MEMORY!  SHE IS A MEMORY SPECIALIST!!!!   If it hadn’t been so tragic it would have been hysterical.  Well, it actually was as the three of us burst into uncontrollable laughter!  Thank you, my dear friends, for laughing with me, not at me. 

Surely nobody with chemo brain is proud of this after-effect from cancer treatment.  In fact, if patients are not honest about this post-chemo syndrome, if they try to hide the challenges faced by the lack of memory recall, it could have a negative impact on so many lifestyle matters, including employment. 

For me, the answer to chemo brain has been this – tell those who love me, who I trust to take care of me as I continue to make brain progress. 

How long does it last?  Chemo brain usually goes away.  However, there are a few who seem to be plagued with it forever. In studies with breast cancer patients that required chemotherapy, half of them had gotten better one year after treatment had ended – about half had not.  So, the answer is:  physicians cannot say how long this condition lasts.  It just depends on a variety of factors, especially high-dose chemo versus standard-dose. 

I’ve done some reading, two very good books on the market today:  ChemoBrain: How Cancer Therapies Can Affect Your Mind (Ellen Clegg) and Your Brain After Chemo (Dr. Dan Silverman, M.D., Ph.D.). 

It appears that there are several things that can contribute to ridding the cancer survivor of chemo brain – energy conservation, good sleep, mental stimulation and physical exercise, all of them a part of my daily agenda.  Let’s hope I’m successful in making these things happen each day.  

So remember . . . If a family member, or a friend or a colleague has had to take chemotherapy drugs, be kind.  Those who have endured chemotherapy can retain their functionality, but there's a cost and effort when it comes to memory and recall.  


  1. Stacy, at least you have a good excuse for your memory lapses. :)

    Great post!!

  2. Your cognitive function was A-OK the last time I saw you. I know so many others that have experienced more of a mental deficit from the effects of chemicals on the brain than you- they seem to all work for FOX News or AM talk radio now...:^O


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