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Chemo Brain? It’s Real!

Recent research has provided substantial evidence that the powerful chemicals needed to kill cancer cells can lead to at least part of the cognitive problems experienced by cancer patients.

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The patients tested were compared with a friend or sibling of the same age and gender who had never undergone cancer treatment. They were all tested for memory and motor skills, including word recall and timed dexterity tests. The results showed that among the cancer survivors, most of the cognitive problems were largely temporary, though it did take time for the effects of chemo brain to diminish.

“The real issue here is that recovery from cancer treatment is not a one-year process but a two- to five-year process,” said Dr. Syrjala. However, she notes, “the majority of survivors do function well in the world, even those who may have to adapt to chemo brain.”

Of course, the effects of chemotherapy vary from person to person and not all people will experience chemo brain. In the meantime, cancer experts say if you are experiencing a problem, you can sharpen your mental abilities and cope better if you:

Write things down. Use a detailed daily planner to keep track of important dates, “to-do” lists, websites, phone numbers and addresses. The calendar feature on smart phones will alert you in advance of appointments.

Prioritize. Take on one task at a time, and avoid distractions. Minimize multitasking.

Practice relaxation techniques. Stress can contribute to memory and concentration problems, so try meditation, yoga, or spend quiet time in nature.

Get enough rest. Even if you don’t have chemo brain, fatigue can hurt your memory. Make sure you get enough sleep.

Exercise your brain. Do word puzzles, learn a foreign language, go to a lecture on a subject that interests you.

Exercise your body. Physical exercise can help with stress, fatigue and depression.

Eat your veggies. Studies have shown that eating more antioxidant-rich vegetables such as kale, broccoli and brussels sprouts is linked to keeping your memory working at its best.

If your doctor doesn’t seem to take your thinking and memory problems seriously, get a second opinion. You might need to see a neuropsychologist to help you develop some strategies to make up for your problems with memory, attention and other difficulties.

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