Hester Hill Schnipper Photo by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

FOR A LONG TIME, MANY DOCTORS downplayed patients’ complaints of forgetfulness or problems with concentration during or after cancer treatment. Fortunately, many of those attitudes have changed, as doctors increasingly acknowledge the reality and impact of chemo brain, a term that describes thinking and memory problems that people with cancer have before, during or after cancer treatment.

While commonly associated with chemotherapy treatment, these symptoms of cancer-related cognitive impairment also can accompany other cancer treatments, including hormonal or endocrine therapy. Drugs that help people manage treatment-related side effects, including sleep aids and anti-nausea therapy, can also impact cognition. In addition, stress, anxiety and fatigue, all natural byproducts of living with cancer and its treatment, can interfere with our ability to process and retain information.

Not surprisingly, you may notice you have more trouble remembering things, such as names and words, or are less able to multitask at many points during and after treatment. The good news is that, for most people, symptoms of chemo brain subside with time. But if you are experiencing memory-related problems, several strategies can help you better manage this troubling side effect.

1) Don’t underestimate the power of lifestyle factors that can fuel your brain as you recover. Get plenty of sleep and exercise, and eat lots of plant-based foods.

2) Make a conscious effort to reduce your overall stress levels. For example, if you know you struggle to make dinner, come up with a simple meal plan with easy-to-make dishes.

3) Create rituals where you find time to relax. You could make herbal tea each day in the afternoon or schedule a daily phone call with your friend on the morning commute. 

4) Try meditation, listening to music and gentle stretching exercises, including yoga.

5) Challenge your brain by working on a jigsaw puzzle or completing a crossword puzzle. 

6) Even though you may not feel your best, avoid hiding in your office or at home. If you are in the office, consider meeting a colleague somewhere for a snack or an afternoon walk. Human interaction is a natural brain booster.

7) If you are struggling at work, practice asking for help. If there are specific ways your employer can help you, talk to your boss or human resources about any work accommodations.

8) Clear your desk or workspace so objects and piles are not distractions.

9) Recall a useful phrase, rehearse to remember, which means talking out loud. If you often go into another room to fetch something and forget what it is, say the nature of your errand out loud. Similarly, if you meet a new person whose name you might not readily recall, be sure to say the name back in a sentence.

10) Add items to a to-do list as soon as you remember you will need to complete a task. The physical act of writing things down can also reinforce your memory.

11) Be kind to yourself if you forget something or make mistakes. You have been through a very tough period. This time of mental recovery is normal and expected. If it helps you feel better, you can say something like: Clearly, I am still getting over cancer treatment. Fortunately, it is better every day.

Hester Hill Schnipper, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a breast cancer survivor who served as the manager of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.