Chemo fog is also commonly referred to as chemo brain. It is like weather related fog in that a person just can’t see clearly or get much done. You go through the motions, but life lacks luster. You can’t shake being tired when you wake up. Fatigue of the mind stays with you all day. Other symptoms include difficulty concentrating, trouble remembering conversations or the right word, and taking longer to complete projects or tasks. A serious illness can also bring on extra stress, depression, anxiety, and insomnia. All of these can affect a person’s cognition. Although I never really felt confused or had trouble remembering anything, I just had a general mental fogginess that I couldn’t quite identify. I was slower. You get used to it and just figure it’s part of the collateral damage of treatments.
Then one day, the chemo fog lifted. I remember the morning about six months out from what I thought was my final chemo back in 2012. I woke up and my mind was completely clear. It felt like information traveled faster on neural pathways. It happened again the next morning. By the third morning, I was convinced that I had met one more benchmark that life was returning to my normal.
It hadn’t, but the chemo fog was gone. Even with continual treatments over the past three plus years, I never had that sense of slower processing return. I am grateful that my thinking is as clear as ever.
Many people deal with chemo fog every day. What can a person do to help minimize chemo brain?
Stay well organized.
Make lists and follow routines. Writing important ideas down will ease any pressure to remember so much on your own. Try to keep all your notes in one place so what you’re trying to remember isn’t scattered about in several different places. Use a daily planner, your phone, or an ongoing notebook of lists. A notebook or health journal is also a good place to track chemo brain symptoms since you may discover patterns when it seems better or worse. Medications or specific situations may also affect your memory. Following a routine will help you with day-to-day schedules. Do you always pay bills on a certain weekday? Is pizza night every Tuesday? Do you have a grocery list of staple foods that you always buy? Are there specific days that you use for specific appointments? I always set up acupuncture appointments on Mondays. I spaced an appointment that I made on a Wednesday (even though it was written down) because I just didn’t go there on Wednesdays. I do well with routines, not so much with changes in those routines.
Get plenty of rest and sleep.
It’s said that driving when you’re tired is as dangerous (or more dangerous) as drunk driving. I know people who haven’t had any cancer treatments who are unable to remember much because they simply do not get enough sleep. Lack of sleep slows your brain in processing information. Sleep is important all the time, but it’s especially an important part of healing and recovery during and after cancer treatments. Appointments, errands, and work may go more smoothly if you complete some activities in the morning when you are fresher and have more energy. I wanted to walk the other evening with a friend and was simply too tired to go. I was grateful she cancelled and now I know to schedule those activities earlier in the day.
Don’t do too much.
Focus on one activity at a time. Ask for help from family and friends so you can conserve mental energy for more enjoyable endeavors or your work if you’re working. Multi-tasking doesn’t work well for someone experiencing confusion with an unreliable memory. If you know you need a whole day or two after a treatment to focus on the basics of the basics, that’s fine. There is no need to push yourself.
Play brain games.
I like word games and brain teasers. I did a lot of word puzzles and critical thinking exercises with my students. My mom and I would do jigsaw puzzles together. A few years ago, I bought the memory game Simon more out of nostalgia than any other reason, but it’s a great way to work short-term memory skills. Reading is another way I continue to work my gray matter.
Make healthy choices in terms of eating and exercise.
Veggies are better for brain health than sugar. Moving around is good for both mind and body. It can help decrease fatigue brought on from treatments. This may be a good time to put the word out to friends who have offered to help that a casserole or dinner with fruit and salad would be appreciated.
Stay tuned for a special Monday post where I continue with a few thoughts about the atmospheric fog that limits visibility. It’s a bit shorter, yet, metaphorical and worth pondering.
- What has been helpful for you or someone you know who has had chemo brain?
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