8 Tips for Dealing with Chemo Brain

by Phyllis Johnson Patient Advocate

Evidence suggests that 25 to 40 percent of cancer patients and survivors experience cognitive problems to some degree. This condition, commonly called “chemo brain,” is not well understood. For years, doctors brushed off “chemo brain” as a product of stress. But among cancer patients, you will hear stories about how their memory and ability to handle complex tasks have changed since their cancer treatment. Dr. Robert J. Ferguson of the University of Pittsburg Cancer Institute says that cancer itself, not just chemotherapy, may be part of the problem and is studying how to help patients.

Does anyone else experience these chemo-brain lapses?


** Tip. For meetings or presentations, write as much as possible ahead of time and have someone check it. If you need to add something during your presentation, ask someone else to be the scribe.

Tip. It’s OK to make people repeat things. I used numbers over and over again, and made up mental tricks for remembering them. I learned numbers by noticing the pattern my fingers made while calling—down the middle row, then up to the top and across, for example. Smart phones make it easier to call people in your contact list, but you need to memorize some numbers to give to other people, or in case of emergency. I still write my own phone number at the top of the page when I make a phone call in case I need it.

Tip. Always confirm your dates. Repeat the date back to them. Triple check that you haven’t reversed or skipped numbers.

Tip. Notice when you have the most trouble. I couldn’t concentrate when I was tired. Pay attention to whether caffeine or medications affect your mental acuity. Do activities with a heavy cognitive load at your best time of day.

Tip. Start by writing down what needs to be done. Break projects down into tiny steps. Put your list where you can check it frequently and mark off what you have accomplished.

Tip. Try to arrange your work so that you do just one thing at a time. Turn off the phone and email notifications. No one wants to admit that they need accommodations to do their job, but the American with Disabilities Act covers cancer patients. You are entitled to ask for reasonable accommodations in your schedule or a setting that will allow you to do your job in the most effective way. If your work involves detailed reading of contracts or financial reports, you may need to ask to be transferred to a different type of work until the chemo fog lifts.

Tip. Not every memory lapse is chemo induced. Knowing that other people are having problems can help you stress less which may improve your memory.

Tip. Ask for help. Some medications may help, so let your doctor know what’s going on. A recent study looked at cancer survivors who were still having memory issues an average of four years after chemotherapy. The ones who participated in a therapy called "Memory and Attention Adaptation Training" (MAAT) had fewer problems than the people in the control group. The training consisted of eight sessions delivered by video conference. Ask about cognitive therapy that might reduce the problem.


Roth, A. New Psychotherapy May Help Fight Chemobrain in Cancer Survivors. Cure May 12, 2016. Retrieved June 21, 2016 from http://www.curetoday.com/articles/new-psychotherapy-may-help-fight-chemobrain-in-cancer-survivors?p=1

Wiley. (2016, May 2). Cognitive-behavioral therapy may help reduce memory problems in cancer survivors who have received chemotherapy. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 21, 2016 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160502150642.htm

Phyllis Johnson
Meet Our Writer
Phyllis Johnson

Phyllis Johnson is an inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) survivor diagnosed in 1998. She has written about cancer for HealthCentral since 2007. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the oldest 501(3)(c) organization focused on research for IBC. Phyllis attends conferences such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD® Institute. She tweets at @mrsphjohnson.