7 things to know about ‘chemo brain’

Many who have undergone treatment for chemotherapy report they can’t think as clearly as they used to. Experts break down the phenomenon often known as “chemo brain.”

5:00 AM

Author | Ian Demsky

Brain Rainbow Cloud Gray Fog
Getty Images

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 University of Michigan Health Rogel Cancer Center, shares the latest findings on "chemo brain."

1. It's real.

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

2. 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.

3. There can be many factors involved.

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

MORE FROM MICHIGAN: Sign up for our weekly newsletter

4. 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.

SEE ALSO: 7 Ways to Fight Cancer Fatigue

5. Help is available.

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

6. Working on certain risk factors may lessen the effects.

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

7. 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 both perceived and objective improvements. Some medications, like anti-dementia drugs, appear promising, but more research is needed.

SEE ALSO: How to Reduce Stress for Cancer Patients During Treatment

Get help

Rogel Cancer Rehabilitation Program, a team-based program to help people get back on track before, during and after cancer treatment.

Like Podcasts? Add the Michigan Medicine News Break on iTunes, Google Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

More Articles About: Cancer Care Cancer Survivorship and Long-Term Follow-Up Cancer: Help, Diagnosis & Treatment
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories blue sleep mask eyelashes
Health Lab
How to cope with sleep issues after cancer treatment
An oncology physician gives 5 ideas to try.
Couple sitting at table with wine, garden in background, woman with arm around man.
Health Lab
Finding your new groove
How to overcome sexual challenges after cancer.
father drying off daughter on head with white towel with daughter wearing swim cap and goggles.
Health Lab
Keeping afloat during the pandemic
Swimming was how Kara Wolter found solace, especially after her bone cancer diagnosis and leg amputation. But COVID often took away her safe place and delayed her Swim Across America race. Here’s how she ultimately crossed the finish line.
Woman marathon running with handful of dimes
Health Lab
Woman runs half-marathon on one-year anniversary of complex cancer surgery
Robin Schroeder was determined to continue her active lifestyle, even after she underwent a Whipple, a taxing operation with a difficult recovery period.
girl in hospital bed on left sad and on right standing proud as a nurse on hospital floor
Health Lab
Nursed Back to Health
Olivia Goff was diagnosed with cancer twice before age 21. But she kept her goals in sight, eventually becoming a nurse on the same floor she received treatment.
Health Lab
7 Ways to Fight Cancer Fatigue
Many cancer patients report varying levels of fatigue during and after their treatment. Simple steps can ease the condition.