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What Is ‘Chemo Brain’?

Answers From a Neuropsychologist

Fatigue, hair loss, and nausea and vomiting are some well-known side effects of chemotherapy. But people undergoing chemotherapy might experience mental and emotional side effects, too. Eric B. Larson, PhD — a neuropsychologist and director of Psychology at Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital — explains what you should know about chemotherapy-induced cognitive impairment, commonly called "chemo brain."

Understanding Effects

People with cancer invented the term "chemo brain" to describe the cognitive changes they experience after starting cancer treatment, Dr. Larson explains. These symptoms and deficits can begin during or after cancer treatment, and the causes include:

  • The cancer itself
  • Chemotherapy or other anti-cancer medications
  • Radiation therapy
  • Hormone therapy
  • Surgery

"Symptoms vary from patient to patient," says Dr. Larson. "But in general, I've seen issues with memory, processing information, and trouble concentrating and paying attention."

People with chemo brain might have trouble:

  • Remembering names and dates or details of events
  • Multitasking
  • Planning and organizing
  • Learning new things
  • Finding the right words to finish sentences

There is no set time frame for chemo brain, Dr. Larson explains. Some people have short-lived symptoms, while others may be impacted for years.

Approaching Treatment

Dr. Larson is a guest lecturer at Northwestern Medicine Living Well Cancer Resources. With programs and services offered at no cost to participants, Living Well Cancer Resources provides comfort and community to anyone impacted by a cancer diagnosis. When he works with people at Living Well Cancer Resources, Dr. Larson says it is important to understand the scale of the issues before talking about treatment options.

"Patients are often really hard on themselves during what is already a challenging time," he explains. "I always like to remind patients that the deficits from chemo brain are relatively subtle. It's not a huge decline."

To help slow that decline or reverse symptoms, Dr. Larson offers these recommendations:

  • Exercise physically and mentally. Staying active helps keep your mind and body sharp.
  • See a psychotherapist. Chemo brain is often linked with levels of personal distress, and a certified mental health professional can help you if you experience chemo brain symptoms. They can also help guide you through depression and anxiety associated with a cancer diagnosis.
  • Stay grounded. It is normal to make mistakes, but they can sometimes be frustrating and frightening. If you are concerned about concentration problems after chemotherapy, talk to your physician. Medical experts can help you understand what is going on with your body and how to address it.