Chemobrain A woman standing in front of a forest in the mist

Chemobrain – Concentration and memory disorders after cancer therapy

What is chemobrain?

After cancer therapy, many patients find it difficult to resume their usual life and to be the same person in family and work as they were before the disease. Even when the body has recovered from the cancer therapy, many patients notice an altered mental performance. They suffer from forgetfulness and concentration problems. Planning everyday tasks causes problems. Up to 7 out of 10 cancer patients are affected by these common side effects of chemotherapy treatment. This connection was first studied in 1995 and became known as “chemobrain.”

Symptoms: How does chemobrain make itself felt in affected individuals?

Affected individuals notice limitations in their abilities related to

  • memory
  • learning new things
  • concentration
  • planning and making everyday decisions

Since cancer therapy, many find it more difficult to grasp a problem or make mistakes that would never have happened before. In technical language, we speak of cognitive limitations (cognition = perception, cognition, ability to think). These limitations vary greatly from patient to patient, and how long chemobrain symptoms last also varies. Affected patients and their relatives usually perceive the symptoms of chemobrain as very burdensome and report a reduced quality of life.

Therapy: How can chemobrain be treated?

Since the course of the disease is difficult to predict, there is no single chemobrain therapy. But there are several approaches that can reduce cognitive impairment. This can be behavioral or exercise therapy, mindfulness exercises, or in some cases, taking medications.

To help you know which therapy is right for you, talk to your health care provider and tell him or her about your problems. He or she knows the course of your cancer therapy and can discuss possible measures with you. He or she can also refer you to other specialists, such as psychooncologists, if necessary.

Before talking to your doctor, it is best to take notes. Write down your answers to the following questions:

  • What symptoms do you have?
  • What therapy have you received?
  • When did the symptoms start?
  • Are symptoms improving or getting worse?
Chemobrain A person writes down tasks on a piece of paper

As the conversation progresses, it may be useful to write down information from your doctor. It may also be worthwhile for you to get a second opinion from another professional. Always remember: your feeling that your memory is not performing as it once did is familiar to many cancer patients. You are not alone in this, and there are steps you can take to counteract the concentration problems, as long as they take into account your own personal medical history.

Causes: How does memory impairment occur?

The term chemobrain may make it seem that cognitive complaints are clearly related to chemotherapy. However, study results have not been able to prove such a connection. Experts believe that it is rather a number of factors that can trigger these complaints. In addition to the influence of various cancer therapies such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiation therapy or immunotherapy, the following main causative factors are also cited:

  • Reduction of red blood cells
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Hormonal changes
  • Drug side effects

Fatigue/severe fatigue, sleep disturbances

Fatigue, or chronic fatigue, can be caused by cancer therapy. Those affected feel tired, fatigued and severely exhausted. It is not uncommon for this to be accompanied by poor concentration and memory problems. The symptoms of fatigue are therefore sometimes not clearly distinguishable from the symptoms of chemobrain. What helps with chronic fatigue may also be a good approach to symptom relief for chemobrain. Again, talking with your doctor can help you find out if you are suffering from fatigue and possible steps to address it.

Cancer can place a heavy burden on the psyche. It is considered likely that psychological factors can cause memory complaints. Cancer usually has a profound effect on your life. On some days, fears and worries predominate, and everyday life in its previous form usually no longer exists. This does not pass by those affected without leaving a trace. The psychological strain causes stress, which in turn can also have a negative effect on memory and brain function.

Chemobrain: What can you do about it?

Chemobrain Puzzle Pieces

If stress is a possible cause of your cognitive complaints, relaxation techniques such as autogenic training or progressive muscle relaxation according to Jacobsen could help you to reduce stress. But memory training such as crossword puzzles or brain teasers as well as concentration training could also relieve inner tension and increase your ability to concentrate. So there are definitely a few measures you can take to actively combat your cognitive impairments. Try the following tips:

  • Observe what time of day your concentration is best. Use this time for tasks that are particularly challenging.
  • Divide large tasks into many, small tasks and solve them step by step.
  • Get some exercise in the fresh air as soon as you find it difficult to concentrate.
  • Schedule regular breaks between your tasks and take time to eat and drink.
  • Your notepad and cancer diary will become your trusty companions. Always pack it and write down important things directly.
  • Use a calendar for your appointments.

In addition, you can also observe a few very general things in everyday life to increase your well-being, your health, but also your ability to concentrate. These include:

  • Eat a balanced diet and drink enough
  • regular relaxation phases
  • physical exercise
  • getting enough sleep
  • reducing media consumption
  • Integrate hobbies into everyday life
  • Avoid nicotine/alcohol

Although the cause of memory problems in cancer patients has not yet been clearly established, it is undisputed that such problems occur frequently. However, study results also suggest that the complaints only last for a certain period of time. How long this is, however, varies greatly from patient to patient. As a sufferer, you should therefore take your problems seriously and talk openly about them with your doctor.

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