Cancer survivors face several obstacles following their diagnosis and treatment. Many of these can diminish a person’s quality of life whether it is physically, mentally, socially, or cognitively. When someone’s cognition or way of thinking, problem solving, or memory is affected it can be especially upsetting.
You may have heard of brain fog also referred to as chemo brain or chemo fog, but I find these terms to be misleading as not everyone who experiences brain fog has had chemotherapy or received treatment for their cancer. Instead, I prefer to look at it as the effect of any cognitive changes that happen because of some part of the cancer experience. Cancer related brain fog can occur before, during, or even a few years after diagnosis, treatment, or remission.
Problems with memory, concentration, and problem solving are some of the biggest complaints. Often, the onset is sudden, and people find that tasks they used to see as simple are now challenging and overwhelming. It is believed that anywhere from 50-75% of cancer patients experience some form of cancer related brain fog during their diagnosis and treatment. Most common signs and symptoms are changes in memory such as: frequently forgetting people’s names, forgetting where items are located, and/or forgetting events or tasks that you have already completed or plan to complete. Problems may occur with word-finding, which is knowing what something is called but being unable to speak the word, or with frequently miss-naming items or people. Trouble with sequencing daily tasks, staying organized, and multi-tasking are also signs of brain fog.
The causes of cancer related brain are still unclear as there are many factors that can affect cognition. The first things to consider are chemotherapy, radiation, and other cancer related treatments. These all play a large part in the potential cause. We also need to consider a person’s genetics and co-morbidities such as sleep deprivation, poor diet, lack of exercise, and psychological health. Overall, studies looking at potential causes for brain fog are mixed, and there are no definitive large-scale case studies completed yet. Research in general is still very new in this area.
Many patients and family members think that because they cannot physically see the cognitive changes, that they don’t exist. Others mistakenly blame it on the natural aging process. Cancer related brain fog can leave many people feeling alone, frustrated, and unsure how to fix it. Even though you cannot see it, it is very real and can cause significant challenges in one’s life. Cancer related brain fog is different than changes that may arise with the natural aging process. Equating the two can be quite frustrating to the person experiencing it. The more patience and acceptance caregivers, and family and friends can provide their loved one, the less frustration and stress he or she will experience.
There is no cure or medication to fix cancer related brain fog, but there are many things you can do to help minimize the effects. Use calendars, make notes, or write things down in a journal. Use electronic reminders like cell phones or set a timer to help keep you on track with tasks. Decrease background noises and try to eliminate multi-tasking when possible. Most importantly, contact your medical physician. Oncologists are very aware of cancer related brain fog and are typically very willing to refer you to someone like a speech pathologist who can help provide specific techniques and ideas to help with cognitive retraining, memory, and organization.
Cancer related brain fog is a very real problem that patients experience. Thankfully, there is help. Many professionals are trained to work on the cognitive deficits associated with brain fog, so cancer patients do not have to go through it alone.