Oops…I forgot: Coping with chemo brain

Posted August 1st, 2014 by Be The Match and filed in News
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Joette Zola photo-crop2

If things just aren’t sticking in your brain like they did before transplant, you’re not alone. “Chemo brain”—the term often used to describe thinking and memory problems after transplant—is a common experience among people who have had chemotherapy.  For most people, chemo brain doesn’t last long. But for others, it can last for months or years. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help you manage day-to-day despite those “oops, I forgot” moments.

While many people think of chemo brain as being forgetful, that’s not the only symptom. Some of the more common chemo brain symptoms include:

  • Having a hard time remembering a word or someone’s name
  • Difficulty staying focused
  • Trouble learning new things
  • Difficulty organizing daily activities
  • Having a hard time doing several tasks at the same time

If you’re experiencing these symptoms, occupational therapist Joette Zola, OTR-L, with Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, part of Allina Health, says to talk to your doctor.

“While your symptoms are likely chemo brain, it’s important to let your doctor know about any new symptoms or changes you notice during your recovery, just to make sure it’s not anything more serious. If it is chemo brain, your doctor can give you some coping strategies and tips for helping you manage your symptoms. If you need extra support, ask for a referral to a survivorship or rehabilitation program that can help,” shares Joette, who helps people learn to cope with the effects of chemo brain.

Managing chemo brain challenges

While there is no cure for chemo brain, Joette offers the following tips to help you cope:

  • Plan your days and weeks. Make sure your plan is realistic, and you schedule breaks to rest.
  • Do your hardest tasks at the time of day you find it easiest to concentrate. Do these tasks in a quiet place.
  • Support your memory. Use calendars, sticky notes, checklists, alarms and alerts on your phone.
  • Turn off things that might distract you like the TV or radio.
  • Try to focus on one thing at a time.
  • Keep your normal routines and habits to lower stress on your memory.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask others for help.

At the same time, Joette says it can also help to put your energy and attention towards good self care. “As you’re coping with chemo brain, there are triggers that can make it worse, like not getting good sleep, not eating well, and stress. Every person is a little bit different. Take note of what’s making your chemo brain worse, and try to avoid those triggers,” she explains.

Getting support from your family

As you’re coping with chemo brain, you may find it helpful to talk with your family. “If you try to hide what you’re experiencing from your loved ones, it can increase your stress and make you more tired. And, that can lead to more memory challenges,” Joette cautions. “By talking to your family, you can help adjust their expectations of you right now, and they can help to support your new coping strategies.”

Joette adds, “Know that you are not alone and you don’t have to manage these challenges on your own. Talk with your doctor and your family, and ask for the help you need to manage your recovery. Above all, be kind to yourself and use the strategies and routines that work best for you.”

See how others are dealing with chemo brain

“Chemo brain is very real; even now 6 years after treatment. You can make lists, and I make reminders on my calendar. So, you find ways to deal with it.” That’s just one piece of advice offered by Matt, a transplant recipient who’s dealt with chemo brain. Watch this video about Matt, Meghann, and health care experts talk about chemo brain and share tips for managing it.

2 Responses to “Oops…I forgot: Coping with chemo brain”

  1. Dennis rouleau says:

    It’s great to know this. I had memory problems as well. Chemo is nasty stuff. I believe I’m back to normal now after over a year since the transplant.

    Thanks for putting a name to this problem.

    Kind regards,


  2. Carolyn Boersma says:

    I really appreciate your putting this in print–everything listed above has happened to me, and I thank you for the tips provided to help me cope with this. It is better than it was immediately after transplant, but even 3+ years out I still have trouble with completing sentences, remembering names, and distraction. I plan on sharing this with family and friends!

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