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7 Things to Know About Chemo Brain

contributed by Ian Demsky

Mature Black man talks to nurse in an exam room
Photo by GettyImages

Many people who have undergone treatment for cancer, especially chemotherapy, report they just don’t seem to be able to think as clearly as they used to. N. Lynn Henry, M.D., Ph.D., the breast oncology disease lead at the Rogel Cancer Center, shares the latest research findings on “chemo brain.”

It’s real

Forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, difficulty multitasking — about 1 in 3 patients experience mental changes following cancer treatment. Researchers have been giving the topic serious study since the mid-1990s.

Doctors don’t like the term ‘chemo brain’

It sounds pretty scary — and they don’t want fear of the mental side effects deterring patients from getting effective treatments for their cancer. Your doctor might use the term “cancer-related cognitive impairment” instead.

There can be many factors involved

Cognitive impairment is most commonly associated with chemotherapy, but other types of treatment can also affect thinking. Older age, pain, depression, trouble sleeping and other health problems can also play a role.

Testing exists — but it’s complicated

Doctors have questionnaires and formal tests to measure mental changes, but the results don’t always line up with what patients say they’re experiencing. Considerable research is being done to develop better, more reliable tests.

Help is available

Care teams can help patients manage mental side effects from cancer treatment just like they do with physical side effects.

Working on certain risk factors may lessen the effects

Directly addressing a patient’s anxiety, pain, trouble sleeping and fatigue can help improve symptoms.

Research shows several effective treatments

There is no standard treatment for chemo brain, but a growing body of research shows that cognitive rehabilitation and behavioral therapy programs, exercise, and mindfulness programs each were associated with perceived and objective improvements. Some medications, like anti-dementia drugs, appear promising, but more research is needed.


Our Cancer Rehabilitation Program offers a team-based approach to help people get back on track before, during and after cancer treatment:

Download/print the Fall, 2021 issue of Thrive or continue reading the online version.

Thrive Issue: 
Fall, 2021