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Understanding and Overcoming the Effects of “Chemo Brain”

For many cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy, a fear of potential side effects is one of the greatest causes of stress, even if the treatment successfully achieves its larger goal of targeting and eliminating cancer cells. Fortunately, new advances in technology over the past decade have helped reduce some of the most familiar side effects of these treatments, with some patients experiencing only minimal hair loss and mild nausea. A lesser-known chemo side effect, sometimes referred to as “Chemo Brain,” has also become easier to counteract as we get a better understanding of what it is and how to address it.

Chemo Brain is not a scientific term, but a general grouping together of various cognitive struggles a recent chemotherapy patient might experience during their treatment and recovery. “This can include memory problems, having trouble completing tasks, word loss, and/or an inability to learn a new skill,” explains Amber West, an experienced, certified nurse practitioner at the John W. and Edna McManus Shepard Cancer Center.

“For most patients the symptoms of ‘chemo brain’ resolve on their own after the chemotherapy completes. However, for those patients who are continuing with ongoing treatments, the mental side effects can sometimes prove quite burdensome.”

The good news, according to West, is that more care has been taken in recent years to recognize this type of side effect and to help patients build a comprehensive recovery plan tailored to their needs.

“Treatment for chemo brain includes exercises that are both physical–such as walking or other low impact exercises– and mental, such as puzzle books, gardening, and caring for pets; activities that increase attention and concentration. Meditation is thought to increase focus and awareness, as well,” West says, “and can be helpful for improving brain function. Simple day to day management includes rest and sleep, using a planner, eating a balanced diet, avoiding stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine, and maintaining a good routine.”

The first step in overcoming “chemo brain,” however, is being upfront with your doctor and loved ones about what you’re experiencing.

“It’s important to acknowledge it when it occurs and communicate it to your providers and family,” says West. “They can then offer their support and aid in helping you remember important tasks, while also providing encouragement when it comes to an exercise routine, improving your memory, and retaining your independence.”

As a further advantage for patients here in our region, the multi-disciplinary focus of Southeastern Med’s cancer care means you can have psychological support and nutritional support as you go through your journey; all just a short distance from the comforts of home.

To learn more about chemotherapy treatments, side effects, and recovery methods, contact us today at 740.439.2771!

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