Chemo Brain: Basic Tips to Break the Fog
The side effects of cancer treatment are traumatic for any patient, and most all of those patients who undergo chemotherapy treatment report that “chemo brain” is a very prevalent and annoying side effect they deal with. Other issues those patients on chemotherapy face are decreased neurocognitive function, fatigue, and social issues.
Because chemotherapy is toxic to the central nervous system, and sometimes causes neurotoxicity, cognitive decline and neurological problems, patients must be monitored for any neurological changes during their treatment. In other study done on the nervous system when under the influence of chemotherapy treatment, there is also proof showing that chemo can alter emotional regulation, memory and task efficiency.
Fatigue is another aspect of cancer treatment and illness care that is defined as, “distressing, persistent, subjective sense of physical, emotional or cognitive tiredness or exhaustion related to cancer or cancer treatment that is not proportional to recent activity and interferes with usual functioning” (Merriam Webster). This type of fatigue is especially problematic, especially when getting up and moving about is beneficial for recovery.
The social issues that arise when on chemotherapy are unique. If the cancer patient is employed full-time or attending school, the side effects can first be seen in their concentration and focus ability. Cognitive impairments as side effects of treatment can be:
- Lower IQ score
- Lower academic achievement test scores
- Problems with memory and attention
- Poor hand-eye coordination
- Behavior problems.
Many specialists suggest these three steps when helping their patients cope with the effects of chemotherapy on the brain.
- Lower your mental productivity expectations and educate your workplace or school about the existing research around the acceptable condition known as chemo brain. Trying to deal with this condition in private only adds to unnecessary stress you do not need right now.
- Eat a variety of colorful fresh and organic vegetables and fruits, healthy fats such as extra-virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, as well as all the colorful herbs and spices such as cilantro, parsley, chives, turmeric, cloves, cardamom and many more as this reduces the oxidative stress your body is under while going through treatment. A daily smoothie is a great way of getting this done.
- Allow time to rest and sleep but balance this with regular exercise to the best of your ability to optimize your body’s ability to recuperate and keep energy levels up to support your mental alertness.
While it may feel like dealing with Chemo Brain is helpless, there are some things you can do that may help to alleviate some of these symptoms. This includes:
- Weight management and nutrition
- Reduce Stress
- Reduce and eliminate tobacco use
- Reduce and eliminate alcohol.
One of the best, most tried-and-true methods for greatening your overall health is exercise. Not only does it tone and strengthen your body, but also lowers your risk of cancers, disease and illness. In many case studies, exercise has been shown to:
- Lower hormone levels, and the subsequent growth factors that have been associated with cancer development
- Prevent weight gain and obesity
- Reduce inflammation
- Improve immune system function
- Improve overall quality of life including self-esteem, stress, and anxiety
- Prevent cancer recurrence.
For those patients who do choose to exercise, they often report experiences of:
- Increased strength and endurance
- Fewer signs and symptoms of depression
- Less anxiety
- Reduced fatigue
- Improved mood
- Higher self-esteem
- Less pain
- Improved sleep
- Lower risk of cancer recurring.
Sleep has been proven to be an important part of recovery. Sleeping allows your mind and body time to rejuvenate and refresh to help you function at your best. Getting enough sleep ensures your cognitive function, hormone function and blood pressure stay within normal range. Many patients struggle with the inability to sleep or stay asleep. Here are some suggestions to help optimize your sleep pattern.
- Avoid caffeine after noon
- Go to bed at the same time every night
- Minimize blue light (TV, computer, smartphone) before bedtime
- Keep your bedroom dark
- Minimize alcohol before bedtime.
There are many diets that are thrown around as being “the best” for different types of cancer and illness. The fact is, whatever “diet” you go with, be sure you are ingesting fruits, vegetables and proteins that are organic and as natural as possible. Eating these foods has shown to help lower the patient’s overall cancer and disease risk.
In some more recent studies, vegetarians had about half of the risk for cancer and other illnesses as meat eaters. Plant-based diets have been known and linked to the reduction of occurrence of certain types of cancers. Many doctors believe this is due to the natural fiber, bioflavonoids, phytochemicals, antioxidants and other natural enzymes that work to promote good cell growth.
Supplements are not FDA approved, nor have they been proven one-hundred percent effective in medical care. Never begin taking supplements without including your doctor in the discussion. This is especially true if you are currently taking treatment for cancer or any other illness.
Reducing stress in all areas of your life will help promote better overall health. How easy is removing all of the stress from your life? Not always simple. As a society, we are all beyond stressed from varying life pressures. Whether the stress is coming from your cancer, illness, mental stress, or physical stress- they all increase the inflammation in the body, which triggers cell growth and other issues that are linked to cancer development.
There are many things patients can do to lessen or alleviate their stress. Some of these methods could be:
- Pray or meditate
- Deep breathing exercises
- Keep a gratitude journal
- Forgive yourself and others
- Emotional Frequency Technique tapping
- Tai Chi
Reduce your Tobacco Use
By now, everyone knows that smoking or using tobacco has been directly linked to multiple types of cancer. This is true for ALL types of tobacco use. It is never too late to quite your use!
Reduce your Alcohol Consumption
While drinking certain alcohol in moderation or occasionally may reduce your risk of heart disease, drinking alcohol at all also increases your chances of certain cancer. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), “between 5-6% of new cancers and cancer deaths globally are attributed to alcohol. Alcohol use of any kind or amount is linked with an increasing risk of several cancers and medical issues.
Use your Brain
Chemo brain will not disappear overnight, but you can learn to manage and function while dealing with the condition. By engaging your brain as often as you can, you introduce new stimuli, which helps to keep the brain alert and to better rebuild those connections lost due to chemo. There are apps and games made for your “smart phone” that can help you work your brain in fun ways with puzzles and games.
Memory exercise is an important part of the workout for the brain, too. Even the simple game of “Match” that you most likely played as a child, where you take turns turning over two pieces with a partner in hopes to make a match, can help your brain create new nerve paths and increase cell function.
One app that is great for brain function workouts is the Lumosity: Brain Training app. The app offers free options as well as a paid subscription that opens even more brain games.
If you are experiencing chemo brain, do not give up! The good news with chemo brain is that most of the brain function begins to improve once the chemotherapy treatments are completed. Certain effects can last for months after treatment, but the heavy fog and forgetfulness typically ceases. Do not hesitate to reach out to your doctors about this condition if it is causing trouble in your life.
American Society of Clinical Oncology