What is Chemo Brain?

Although denied by authorities for decades brain scans before and after treatment prove that chemo brain does in fact exist in 15 to 50% of chemotherapy patients. There are many ways to improve and address this lasting effect of treatment.

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What is Chemo Brain? By Deb Witter


Photo courtesy of http://www.lghughes.com

Photo courtesy of http://www.lghughes.com

The Lighter greens indicate lessened brain activity in those areas.

First – what is it?

Chemo-brain is a mental fogginess or cognitive dysfunction. This can show up in many different ways with degrees of severity from having to work harder in thinking to noticeable forgetfulness, difficulty in carrying out a sequence of actions, etc.

People respond differently to the many medications administered during cancer treatment and have varying levels of toxicity and reactions. When it comes to chemo brain there is an incredible range of symptoms from mild to severe.

For example, researchers do not know how many patients are affected. The best estimates are that about 15% to 50% of patients have lasting cognitive deficits after chemotherapy.

Per the SWOG Pharmaceutical Sciences Committee, peer review recommendations and meeting, the following was documented on treatment related cognitive impairment.

Incidence of Cognitive Impairment

  • Earlier studies  (2002‐2004) reported 15‐50% of adults solid tumor survivors who had received chemotherapy
  • Incidence of fatigue in breast and lung cancer patients ~ 99%
  • 61% of chemotherapy and radiotherapy patients continue to experience fatigue after treatment stopped [1]

Signs and Symptoms of Cognitive Impairment aka Chemo Brain

  • Fatigue
  • Disruptions in thinking and memory
  • Short‐term vs. long‐term memory (Verbal and Visual)
  • Verbal, mathematical, spatial ability, motor skills
  • Ability to learn
  • Speed of processing information
  • Concentration
  • Attention [1]

Our Personal Experiences with Chemo Brain

My daughter Kayla was seven years old when diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Please keep in mind that she was labeled as “chemically sensitive” so what you are about to read does not mean this will happen to you.

The most noticeable side effect at first was an inability to voice what she wanted to say. She would have a clear thought that she wanted to voice but could not find the words to voice it.  This caused rages or grief.

Next symptom affected her eyesight and could have been caused by a combination of medications. Her depth perception was completely off and she would bump into walls and fall. One time we were walking towards a drop off to the ocean. She could not see that at the edge of the wall the ocean was about eight feet down and almost walked off the edge but I grabbed her first. She was really mad until I pointed downward and suddenly she realized she would have fallen. A look of shocked horror come over her face at the enormity of this error in perception.

Memorization in school was a terrible chore. Addition tables, multiplication tables were all memorized for weeks at a time and she knew them perfectly. A few days would pass by and it was as if we never did them. This alone was incredibly demoralizing.


A common answer in the United States is to address cognitive dysfunction with psychostimulants. One of the major things we learned from treatment is that all drugs carry a price. Especially when taken long term. Instead of masking the problems there are many solutions out there that do not take a toll. Additionally there are many warnings against using phycostimulants. Here is one warning. “Psychostimulant medications are associated with some significant risks. All ADHD stimulant drugs carry warnings that they should not be used by patients with structural heart problems or pre-existing heart conditions (high blood pressure, heart failure, heart rhythm disturbances, or congenital heart disease). These drugs have been associated with sudden death in children with heart problems. They have also been associated with sudden death, stroke, and heart attack in adults with a history of heart disease.”[2]

Instead of drugs there are proven studies validating the use of specific nutrients for improved brain health. Exercise is another valid therapy resulting in improved brain function.

Bluntly, the answer is a loud yes! You can be proactive as a patient and survivor to overcome these sometimes daunting disabilities and turn them from a negative to a positive.



  1. http://www.swog.org/Visitors/Download/Meetings/Lecture.pdf Internet July 2015
  2. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, New York Times article     published Wednesday July 29th, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/medications.htm




Copyright © 2018 Deb Witter