Ah “Chemo Brain,” the gift that keeps on giving. And if you are fortunate enough to go through chemo and menopause within a close timeframe (like I did), you may feel like you have completely lost control of your memory and learning ability.
What is Chemo-brain, and how can you beat it?
Soon after you start chemotherapy, your thoughts can start to feel scrambled. Remember, this is not "you" but a side effect of chemo on your nervous system.
The Mayo Clinic provides a thorough list of symptoms that you may experience with Chemo-brain:
• Being unusually disorganized
• Difficulty concentrating
• Difficulty finding the right word
• Difficulty learning new skills
• Difficulty multitasking
• Feeling of mental fogginess
• Short attention span
• Short-term memory problems
• Taking longer than usual to complete routine tasks
• Trouble with verbal memory, such as remembering a conversation
• Trouble with visual memory, such as recalling an image or list of words
Chemo brain is frustrating and self-perpetuating. It can increase with stress, and when you experience any of the above symptoms, guess what?
It makes you more stressed, and increases the intensity of the very symptom you are trying to overcome.
Several years after completing chemo, I still periodically experienced most of these chemo brain symptoms, and was always on the lookout for getting back to my normal energy and wit. The worst for me is not being able to communicate clearly, constantly searching for even the simplest words.
I found these tricks helped enormously in coping with chemo brain!
1. Keep a notepad handy where you know where it is at all times (paper or smart phone).
List thoughts and task reminders as soon as they come up; a few seconds later you may not remember what you were thinking about.
2. Exercise & fresh air. Depending on your energy level, you may not be able to do as much as you are used to right away, but even a short walk can help to clear the cobwebs from your mind and boost your energy.
It can be quiet time alone, or a chance to share an activity with your family.
3. Games and puzzles. You can start simply, with easy crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, number puzzles like Suduko, even card games like solitaire or Free Cell.
On this note, there is an app called “7 Little Words” that significantly improved my ability to remember words when I was speaking. There are free daily puzzles on both adult and child levels, as well as inexpensive packages if you’d like to do several at a time. Whenever I find myself stumbling through a sentence, I go back to solving a few a day.
4. Be gentle with yourself. A cancer diagnosis is stressful on its own.
Added to that are the other side effects of treatments, along with trying to maintain your regular family and/or work obligations.
These factors can intensify your stress level whether or not you are aware of it.
Meditation, guided imagery and/or yoga can help. There are several forms of yoga, and probably one that is compatible with your physical ability, including “chair yoga.” Many classes now provide pads and bolsters to support your body to make the poses more comfortable.
If you find it difficult to meditate, guided imagery can be much easier and more relaxing. In guided imagery, you listen to a recording of someone helping you imagine such things as a relaxing scene or experience. There are many programs available, and you can download one for free on our site here: Relax and Release.
IMPORTANT: Do not listen to these while driving; they are intended to make you relaxed and even sleepy.
Be sure you are in a comfortable position and a quiet place where you will not be interrupted for at least 30 minutes. Remember to turn off the ringer on your phone as well as any notification sounds.
5. Audio Books – for free! Reading and comprehension can be a challenge for a while, which is another source of stress. During this time, being able to enjoy your favorite genre of stories through audio books is a blessing.
Did you know you can download audiobooks for free from your library?
Check with your local library for their participation with “Overdrive,” a free download from your app store. Even many small libraries are on this network, and you can add as many libraries as you’d like.
A cancer diagnosis can make you feel you have lost control of your body, mind and health. The best part of following these tips is that you will be able to feel more in control, an important factor in lowering your stress level.
Stress isn’t just emotional; your body’s physical reactions to prolonged stress can accumulate. Even if you are not consciously aware and think you can cope with these new challenges, your nervous system is still dealing with a stress overload that can affect your general health in the long run.
You may find that some of these new tools for coping with chemo brain will become your favorite habits for a lifetime.
We would love to hear from you - what works for you to overcome chemo brain?