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Chemo Brain 101

How To Cope With The Effects of Chemo Brain

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Following are some ideas that have proved successful in minimizing the effects of chemo brain:

Health Care

  • Tell your doctor about the symptoms you are experiencing. If new symptoms or degree of symptom appear, let your doctor know by email or leaving a message at his office.
  • Prepare for each meeting with your doctor. For instance, 
    • Keep a symptoms diary that will give your doctor an idea of what symptoms you are experiencing, including time of day and situations in which your symptoms occur. (Survivorship A to Z provides a symptoms diary that you can use. The press of a button turns it into an easy to read graph.)  Keeping track can also help you plan your schedule around when you're feeling at your best. 
    • Keep track of your memory problems including the events that are going on at the time, medications you recenty took and the situation you are in. These notes can help you figure out what affects your memory.
    • Write down your questions and concerns. If you use our Prioritizer tool, you can not only keep track of questions and concerns, you can order them to your priority before the appointment by pushing a button. 
  • Record each session with your doctor. Recorders are built into smart phones. Stand-alone recorders are not expensive.
  • Use aides to help you to remember to take your medications.
  • Ask a family member, friend or other caregiver to help you sort through medical matters.

At work

  • In case your employer doesn't believe you have chemo brain, or doesn't know what it is:
    • Print information from this document which describes chemo brain.
    • Get a note from your doctor  or a neuropsychologist stating that you have chemo brain to use in case you need to. (To find a neuropsychologist, see the section in this document about finding a professional to help.)
  • Write everything down including facts you want to remember and actions you have to take.
    • Create a written plan which lists the steps you need to take to get the job done.
    • Ask co-workers to write you e mails or notes with information you need to remember or tasks you need to do rather than just tell you orally. You don't have to tell them about what's happening.
    • Place Post-It notes around your space as a daily visual to help keep you focused.
  • Think of multi-tasking as an enemy. Avoid multi-tasking. Break jobs down so you can do one thing at a time.
  • Keep your work area clear. Get rid of clutter. Clutter is distracting and can make concentration difficult.
  • When you have something important to say that requires a chain of thought (for example, to your boss or a sales call), rehearse what you want to say. Rehearsing keeps you in control when you cannot concentrate. Rehearsing makes it easier to know the thought to come back to. It helps keep you from spinning out of control.
  • Ask a co-worker to check your work - or use the computer to do it. 
  • Keep the boundaries of your abilities in mind. Everyone has boundaries. Knowing yours can be particularly helpful.

If your work is impacted by chemo brain, you can ask  for an accommodation to help you do your work. In fact, you may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation under laws such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws. (Our information includes how to negotiate for an accommodation. Examples of reasonable accommodations include:

  • Limiting your job to the required basics.
  • Reduce your client load.
  • Limit your hours.
  • Allow more time to get the job done. 
  • An employer supplied note-taker for meetings, or a recorder so you can record the meeting and review what was agreed upon later. 
  • Organize your work space or the way you do your work to make concentration easier. For example, a PDA pulls together your contacts, todo list and calendar.
  • If noise is distracting, look for a way to move your work location or to decrease the noise, or perhaps wear noise reduction ear pads.

Daily Tasks

  • Stay active.
  • Write down your tasks in a detailed daily planner. It doesn't have to be fancy. A simple notebook will do.
    • Keeping everything in one place makes it easier to find the reminders you may need.  
    • Serious planner users keep track of their appointments and schedules, "to do" lists, important dates, phone numbers and addresses, meeting notes and even movies they would like to see or books they would like to read.
  • Be realistic about how much you can do in a day.
    • Try to minimize the number of tasks you need to do each day.
    • Write your tasks down, for instance in a daily planner. Include how long each task will take and where you need to go. Keeping everything in one place makes it easier to find the reminders you may need.
    • List tasks in order of priority. You can use Survivorship A to Z's Prioritizer to change the order of your list to fit changing priorities.
    • PDAs (personal digitial assistants) can be useful in keeping you on track. Alerts that make a sound can help keep you organized and on schedule.
    • Serious planner users keep track of their appointments and schedules, "to do" lists, important birthdays and anniversaries, phone numbers and addresses, meeting notes, and even movies they'd like to see or books they'd like to read.
  • Do the most important tasks first.
  • Write things down as soon as you think of them.
  • Place Post-It notes around your home as a daily visual to help keep you focused.
  • Delegate as many tasks as you can. Friends and family are part of your team and want to help. Let them know what they can do. Give them a schedule if necessary.
  • Set a daily routine to the extent you can.
  • Conserve your energy. It can help you keep focus. 
    • Take frequent breaks.
  • Use appliances with automatic shut-off mechanisms.
  • Use telephones that store phone numbers.
  • Put important items like car keys in the same place every day.
  • Make notes or an outline as you read or study.
  • Set up reminders. Put small signs around the house to remind you of things to do, such as taking out the trash or locking the door.
  • Group long numbers into chunks. For example, the phone number 812-5846 can be repeated as "eight-twelve, fifty-eight, forty-six."
  • When doing a task with a number of steps, such as cooking or working on a computer, whisper each step to yourself.
  • Before you attend family events or work functions:
    • Review what you plan to say or bring up
    • Go over names and dates
  • Repeat what you want to remember. Saying it a couple of times can help your mind hold on to the information.
  • Carry a small digital recorder and record what you want to remember. Digital recorders are not expensive.
  • If there is something you want to remember to do when you get home, call your home phone and leave yourself a voice message.
  • When there are things you want to take with you when you leave home, leave them by the front door - or leave a Post-It on the door reminding you.

Day To Day

  • Make being organized a priority.
    • Make a "memory station" in your home. Put your keys and other items you need in the memory station. You won't have to worry about where things are.
  • Exercise your brain.
    • Do crossword, Soduku, and other puzzles
    • Play games which require thinking such as chess. Include card games which require thinking such as Bridge
    • Find things to memorize.
    • If symptoms are mild, consider learning a new language or taking a class.
    • Read a lot.
  • Exercise your body. 
    • Even mild exercise on a daily basis can help with attention and make you feel more alert. 
    • Exercise can also help decrease fatigue, depression and stress, all of which can contribute to memory problems. 
    • Caution: Do not overdo exercise to the point of fatigue. Fatigue may make the chemo brain worse.
  • Eat your vegetables. Studies have shown that eating more vegetables can help maintain brain power. (They are also part of a cancer prevention diet and lifestyle.)
  • Keep distractions to a minimum when you have to concentrate.
  • Do not try to multi-task. Focus on one thing at a time.
  • Manage stress. 
    • Managing stress better may improve your memory and attention. To learn how, click here.
    • Learning how to relax can help you remain calm even in stressful moments. For example, consider relaxation training to focus attention.
  • Get enough rest and sleep.
  • Accept the problem, including that it is not your fault.
  • Look for humor in the situation. As many patients have noted, being able to laugh about things you can't control can help you cope.
  • Keep in mind that you notice your problems much more than others do.
  • Interact with people to the extent you can. 
    • Studies show that simply interacting with people can sharpen your thinking skills.
    • Tell the people closest to you what is going on. They will likely notice something is amiss in any event.
    • Getting support and understanding can make you feel relieved, help you relax, and make it easier for you to focus and process information.
  • If you have children, it is advisable to also tell them about your cancer and your chemo brain.

Family and Friends

  • Tell family and friends about your chemo brain. Telling relieves the stress of trying to hide the effects.
  • Tell them what they can do to help.
  • Ask for understanding. Chemo brain is real.
  • Ask for help with activities or chores that are difficult for you.


If it is difficult to remember where you parked your car:

  • Park in the same spot every day.
  • Write the location of the spot on your parking ticket.
  • Purchase an electronic finder. For example, look for the type of device where you press a button and a noise is made at the source. Some cars (such as Subaru) have this feature built into their electronic key.
  • Use direct deposit for your paycheck so your check is deposited directly into your bank account.
  • Make alerts in your calendar, in your computer or PDA to remind you about financial deadlines, including when moneys are due for which you do not normally receive a bill.

Names and Numbers

  • Use rhymes, word associations and other memory tricks to remember names and numbers.
  • Try using more than one sense to help remember. For instance, link a person's name with an odor, taste or texture.
  • If you can't remember someone's name, phrase your sentence so you don't have to use the name.

PLEASE SHARE YOUR TIPS. E mail: Survivorship A to Z. Please let us know if it is okay to use your name if your tip is posted.

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