Strategies for Chemo Brain

We all experience cognitive disfunction from time to time and as we age. Cancer survivors experience something worse known as chemo brain. These Strategies include: exercise, stretching, sleep, brain games, social life, volunteering and implementing a plan. All detailed fully here.

by Mina O’shea

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Learn empowering strategies to improve cognitively. It is my belief that we are capable of finding and using workable answers for almost any problem. The key is dedication and daily use of these specific strategies to attain or maintain cognitive function. Results are not over night. You would have to be your own judge and investigator experimenting to find the right combination of actions for you. The strategies listed below are backed by science as proven methods to implement.

Having our daughter go through two and a half years of chemotherapy was the most challenging thing I have ever experienced in life. Seeing cognitive decline due to chemo brain was quite heart-wrenching along with the incredible frustration it would cause Emily on a day to day basis. There were times she wanted to say something to me, the thought was right in her head but she could not voice the concept. This was so frustrating for her to see and know what she wanted to say but being unable to voice or compose the thought. She would end up just sitting there and crying. It was this exact scenario that impelled me to find and implement things to try. I wanted to help her voice what she was thinking.  The strategies below proved very workable and resulted in  cognitive improvement over time.

First Chemo Brain Strategy – Exercise

I know you have heard this all before. The sad truth is that too many people lead sedentary lives. Being sedentary leads to decay, period. Decay as in loss of strength, reduced mental clarity, depression, lack of oxygen in the blood and brain, and overall reduced function of bodily organs including digestion.

In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. Resistance training, balance and muscle toning exercises did not have the same results. The results were published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.  “It is interesting to observe marked improvements on most of the cognitive measures after the exercise program. They suggest improvements in perceptual psychomotor intelligence, neuropsychological function, psychomotor speed and associate learning.”  Go to the end of the PDF document to read the conclusion of the study. Its much easier than reading the whole article. This is the exact reason why I do heavy aerobic exercise first and followed by weights or other actions.

I could not help myself and included this paragraph from the same study quoted above. Its so important for everyone in most age groups to understand this.  Meir-Ruge, Emmenegger et al (1975) maintain that the fundamental mechanisms in ageing are mediated more by metabolic changes than by circulatory disturbances. An exercise programme has distinct and well documented physiological, biochemical and psychological effects (Ismail and Young, 1977; Young and Ismail, 1977). Some of these psychological effects were demonstrated in this study (Table VI). To the extent that decline in cognitive functioning with age is the result of physiological and biochemical changes, it is not un-reasonable to expect improvements in cognitive functioning as physiological and biochemical improvements occur with exercise. Similarly, improvements in mental health can be expected. [Emphasis added.]

Exercise improves mood, aids sleep and reduces stress and anxiety –something cancer patients go through a lot of. We incorporated whatever exercise possible when my daughter was going through treatment. We even had gentle movements she could do in bed when bedridden. So there is no excuse! Even very sick people can participate in gentle movements for five minutes at a time.

One affordable exercise device is a mini trampoline, also known as a rebounder. They usually measure three feet across and stand approximately seven inches off the floor. Some are foldable for easy storage. These range in price from $60.00 upwards of $500.00 My recommendation is to find a used one and try it out. Then go from there. You can find lots of information and exercises on the Internet or purchase The Rebound System book by Robert Appel.

The main point is to commit to daily exercise of 5 minutes a day. After a week or two increase by another 5 minutes. If you stick to this slow increase within months you will be a regular and well onto your new life as a dedicated exerciser! One very key point to remember is that the goal is to get to the point where exercise becomes a way of life because you have become addicted to it.  This is the best addiction one can have.

Emily did daily exercise everyday she could during treatment. Weights, swimming, stationary bike and trampoline. We were trying to keep osteoporosis away as well as chemo brain and exercise made a huge difference.



(Photo credit -Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), Aalborg Zoo, Denmark, by Malene Th.)

In addition to exercise, stretching is crucial for relief of muscular stress and prevention of injuries. Animals and babies always stretch when they wake up. Animals also stretch throughout the day. Humans do not. Yet this action can help physical health by increasing muscular motion, enhancing muscular coordination, increase blood circulation and so much more. Yoga is stretching and strengthening at the same time.

Stretching helps warm the body up prior to activity thus decreasing the risk of injury as well as muscle soreness.

The benefits of stretching are many and have been proven through various studies over time. There are exact methods to stretch properly and this article gives precise instructions. Once you learn these and use them daily you will see how good you feel after just a two-minute stretch from sitting at a desk for hours. I stretch before and after exercise, when my shoulders get tight and when I have sat too long, etc. These make a huge difference in getting rid of those little aches and pains we acquire over time.

Stretching after infusions would be very helpful. We all know how going for treatment can be a very stressful endeavor.

If you are interested in learning more about Yoga here is an excellent article


A group of studies all conducted independently, have reached a similar sobering conclusion: sleep problems—including several common sleep difficulties faced by millions of people on a regular basis—may, over time, lead to cognitive impairment and even dementia.

You are obviously here looking for answers to chemo brain. Well, the first action would be to figure out how to get a-good-nights-sleep. Chemo can cause sleep disruption or the inability to sleep.

During treatment our oncologists allowed us to change the daily dose of chemo from before bed to the afternoon to help my daughter sleep. Changing the time chemo was given helped a lot! We were also given permission to give her Melatonin in a very low dose and this helped too.

Here is a great quote from Florence Nightingale (first knighted nurse) of England. “A healthy person who allows himself to sleep during the day will lose his sleep at night. But is exactly the reverse with the sick generally; the more they sleep, the better will they be able to sleep.”

Talk to your medical team if undergoing medical treatment of any kind to find out what you can and cannot take for sleep. Research natural sleep remedies and habits. Please, do not take additional medications for sleep. Medications always come with side effects whereas natural remedies do not! They might require more work in figuring out what works for you but this investment of your time is worth it in the long run.

Dr. Denk says that people take too much Melatonin when they try to use it. For best results start with a 1 mg tablet that you cut i to quarters or half. Take the lowest dose and see how it goes. If you took too much you will feel groggy when you get up. If you took the right amount you will sleep well and feel rested when rising with no grogginess at all. This is how you figure out the right dose for you. In addition I have heard that Lemon balm and Tart Cherry taken with Melatonin (at the right dose) work very well for sleep.

You have to check with you medical doctor if you are on treatment to make sure it is okay to take herbs or Melatonin with your medical regimen.

There are relaxation techniques, reading instead of watching TV, drinking warm tea with honey, having quiet, to name a few tops for getting yourself relaxed and ready for sleep.

Brain Games

Yes, folks its been proven that working mental muscle actually improves brain function. All of us have things we have always wanted to learn, an instrument, language, sport, game, etc., if dealing with cognitive dysfunction, now is the time to take that desired subject, sport or hobby and start learning it. There are also games like air hockey, ping pong, foosball and others that increase hand to eye coordination and cognitive function. Wii has a wonderful array of healthy exercises and games to choose from as well. It is my belief that the best strategy to employ would be games that you have to participate in physically and mentally. In our house with kids playing video games and glued to telephones I have seen a reduction of cognitive function not an improvement.  Based on my observation the best results require physical and mental activity combined together to achieve the best results.

Social Life 


Various studies have found that when we have numerous social connections we do better in life. Volunteering could be one of those life- changing decisions.

Joining a club or group could be another. The theory is that man evolved through groups like tribes and needs these kinds of connections to feel a part of life.

You can find groups through Facebook, local community centers, Church groups, volunteering at various organizations, the main point is to search out your interest and hook up. Here are some links that may help you find groups of interest.

Local animal shelters always need help. Another is local hospitals and schools.

If you are a business veteran and want to share your skills here is a great website.

Organizational Strategies


Photo courtesy of

As we age most of us realize our mental sharpness is not as good as it once was. If you have gone through medical treatment, cancer, surgery or radiation you could be experiencing cognitive dysfunction to a greater or lesser degree. I have personally found that being proactive helps to alleviate these weaknesses whatever they are. I use an appointment book with large spaces for each day where I can keep notes. I also write a daily To-Do list that I attach to my appointment calendar for easy reference and keeping it with me through out the day. Some people prefer to use a day runner or daily journal. You may have to experiment with methods to find what works for you.

Simply put, a bad memory is only a hindrance if you do nothing about it.

Implementing a plan

If you misplace the car/house keys then put up a hook just for the keys so that they do not get lost. I use a special belt hook that attaches to my belt or purse. The idea is to find the area of weakness and come up with workable solutions to remedy the problem. During my daughters cancer treatment I was so overwhelmed by her medications, supplements and routines that I implemented a weekly spreadsheet covering everything. I attached it to a clipboard with an accompanying pen and checked off items throughout the day as I got them done. This one action was so empowering I cannot tell you. It was my anchor through our chaotic daily routine and gave me much stability.

It may take some work, trial and error to figure out your own anchor that supports and helps you through out the day, but once you have it, you will wonder how you lived without it.

May you, through implementation of these solutions and recommendations experience improvement, increased vitality and clarity.



Copyright © 2018 Deb Witter