A common side effect after a cancer diagnosis is cognitive dysfunction. Even if you have never had chemotherapy, complaints of memory slow-down or loss, and difficulty learning new things are real. After my own leiomyosarcoma journey began in 2002, I realized that I just wasn’t as sharp as I used to be. At times, I even felt embarrassed by a lack of memory or loss for a word. Read how cancer affects our brain function and what you can do about it to feel confident again.

 

HOW CANCER IMPACTS OUR BRAINS

 

Menopause. If you became menopausal due to surgery, estrogen blockers or chemotherapy, your brain is not functioning as well as it used to. Estrogen helps to keep the brain healthy.  More 

 

Chemotherapy. It is now well documented that chemotherapy kills brain cells, sometimes leaving people in what they describe as a “cognitive fog.” For some it is temporary, and other it becomes permanent. More  

chemo brain

 

Trauma and depression. Having a life-threatening disease cause emotional trauma and depression. Both are the result of physical changes in the brain from excessive stress. Have you ever been terrified and had the “deer in the headlight” freeze response? You can’t think because the brain is focused on its primitive survival mechanism of the flight or fight response. With post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from cancer, we are in a constant state of anxiety and fear, which are contradictory for learning. More 

depressed brain

LEFT: depressed brain

Lack of sleep.  Sleep disturbances are a common result of a cancer diagnosis. Sleep is essential for brain repair and cognitive health. More 

Pain. Did you know that pain, especially chronic ongoing pain. affects concentration and memory?  Not only does it interfere with sleep, but it blocks your ability to hold information long enough to process it and store long term information. More

Age. It’s true that are thinking will slow down with age. We produce less neurotransmitters or chemical messengers, that help us with recall and learning new things. More 

 
WHAT HELPS?

 

Memory tools. I could not function without writing details on my calendar and looking at it several times a day. Use whatever helps: post it notes, planners, voice memos or other visual prompts like to “to-do” and shopping lists.

Self-talk. I also repeat to myself what I want to remember…scissors, scissors, scissors… so I don’t walk into the kitchen and forget why I’m there. This is also very helpful when I have to do a sequence of tasks.

Limit distractions and focus on one thing at a time.  Turn off background noises like the TV or radio. Let people know when you don’t want interruptions.  Keep your papers organized neatly and your clutter to a minimum. Research shows that we can only focus on one thing at a time.

Mental exercises and stimulation. It’s the old, “use it or lose it” advice. Experts say you must learn new things to keep your brain young. Play new online games that challenge you, pick up a new hobby, learn a language, etc. Do something out of your comfort zone. More 

Exercise! Exercise provides oxygen to your brain, releases endorphins, increases new brain cells and more. More  

Sleep. If you have trouble sleeping, see your doctor for help and/or read up on what are good sleep habits to start practicing. More 

Nutrition. Diet impacts our brain. Eat specific “brain super foods” that are rich in antioxidants and omega 3 oils.  More 

Meditation and Mindfulness. There is a lot of research on the benefits of meditation on mood, learning, attention and focus. If meditation is difficult for you, start with a guided meditation recording or mindfulness practice every day. More

Stimulant drugs. Adderall, Ritalin and other amphetamines are known to help with chemo brain.  Consult with your doctor to see if a stimulant drug may help you. More 

Antidepressants. There are many new and helpful drugs on the market now that can boost your moods and help motivate you. These drugs help replenish chemicals you may not be making, that your brain needs to stay healthy. More 

With a combination of several of the above suggestions, I was able to return to my former job. I do recognize that I’m still not back to my old self 100% cognitively. I have to take on projects slower and forgive myself for more mistakes than before. But I’ve accepted this is the new me and do what I can to stay on top of my game.

Sharon Anderson MSW,

President LMSDR and

certified cancer coach