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What does cancer treatment do to my brain?

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Some people who have cancer treatment experience changes in thinking and memory (cognitive functioning). Changes in cognition can happen at any time during or after cancer treatment, but they often happen while the person is undergoing treatment or within the first few months afterward. Many people do not have problems with their thinking and memory, while others may have symptoms that range from mild to severe. These problems may last only a short time or they may be long-lasting (chronic). This article explains the most common problems that people experience with their thinking and memory and provides advice on what you can do to cope with any changes that occur.

Research shows that there are several different ways cancer and its treatment can affect thinking and memory, but only some of these changes are long-lasting. Often, chemotherapy and radiation make it harder for us to remember new information for a short time, but once we finish our treatments, our thinking abilities usually return to normal. What’s more important is that even though we may not remember things as well during or right after treatment, we still think just fine. In other words, it’s common for people with cancer to feel like they are having a problem with their thinking while they’re in treatment—but often they really aren’t.

Brain fog

The confusion, forgetfulness, and difficulty concentrating that some people experience during and after their cancer treatments is referred to as chemo brain or chemobrain. This is often temporary and will resolve itself once a person has finished their therapy. While it can be frustrating, there are ways of dealing with chemo brain so that you can continue your everyday activities without being slowed down by foggy thinking. Here are some things you can do

One of the most common things you may experience after having surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation is a fuzzy feeling. This state of mind is called brain fog and it’s not just a dull moment when your mind feels like it’s in a dreamlike haze. This feeling can be so intense that it makes thinking difficult and you may feel as if you are simply functioning on autopilot. If you’re living with one of these types of treatments, there are steps you can take to help yourself manage how your brain feels. There are also ways to find support if brain fog becomes overwhelming and interferes with your ability to function normally day-to-day in life.

Working memory and reasoning

A number of studies have found that chemotherapy (and other types of treatment) affect a person’s working memory and reasoning ability. People who have had chemotherapy report feeling mentally foggy and having trouble with attention, concentration, multitasking, and completing daily tasks. As a result, people often report feeling more depressed or anxious as well. While some of these changes are temporary (lasting only during or immediately after treatments), others can last long after treatments have stopped—this is why it is important for caregivers to understand what their loved one will be experiencing during recovery.

Other effects on memory

Chemotherapy is linked with a decrease in memory and cognitive functioning, but not all patients experience memory loss. The severity of side effects depends on whether you’re receiving one or more drugs. A 2015 study found that those who received five cycles of chemotherapy plus bevacizumab (Avastin) had greater decreases in verbal memory and overall cognitive function than those who received chemotherapy alone or chemotherapy plus placebo (sugar pill). Bevacizumab is used for breast, lung, kidney, and colorectal cancers.

Side effects of chemotherapy on thinking

The effect of chemotherapy on a person’s thinking ability can vary widely, depending upon many factors including their age and overall health. Chemotherapy is likely to affect your thinking ability in some way, but how much it affects you may depend more on who you are than on what you are being treated for. Some research has shown that chemotherapy affects people differently if they are treated at a younger or older age, or if they have impaired cognitive function prior to beginning treatment. For example, young adults appear more susceptible to problems with memory and attention when undergoing certain types of chemotherapy compared with older adults or children. In addition, women seem particularly vulnerable to changes in their thinking abilities following specific types of chemotherapy.

Effects of radiation on thinking

In most cases, your thinking will improve after radiation therapy has ended. If it doesn’t, be sure to ask your doctor about possible complications that may have arisen during or after treatment (see below). Most people don’t need any special care for their thinking skills unless they are experiencing symptoms. A few basic tips: Relax. It can be hard not to dwell on what could happen as a result of radiation therapy, but dwelling and worrying won’t change anything. Instead, focus on spending time with loved ones and doing what you enjoy most—be it gardening or dancing—to help you relax and release stress . Go easy on yourself . Take breaks during challenging tasks when you need them.

Final thoughts

Cancer patients can experience changes in memory and thinking abilities during and after cancer treatment. Many patients report that fatigue, pain, medications, or general stress make it difficult to concentrate or focus on tasks. The ability to concentrate can be affected by sleep deprivation (which is common for many people undergoing chemotherapy) as well as anxiety over whether or not you are getting better. This can lead to a feeling of time distortion: You feel like time is passing quickly but have difficulty finishing tasks that may have taken only minutes in your mind. Patients often need extra help organizing their thoughts when speaking with friends, family members, medical professionals, and others involved in their care because many people find it difficult to communicate verbally at times due to disruptions in short-term memory processes.


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