A Guide to Chemotherapy

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Thoughts, emotions, and chemo

What about my memory and thinking?

Research has shown that chemo can impact the thinking functions of the brain (known as cognitive functioning) for up to 10 years after treatment. Some of the brain’s activities that are affected are concentration, memory, comprehension (understanding), and reasoning. The changes that are found in patients are often very subtle and others may not even notice them, but the people who have these problems are very aware of the changes in their ability to think.

People who have had chemo and have problems with thinking, memory, or concentration often call it chemo brain or chemo-fog. Some people report having these symptoms even before they start treatment. Others report it even though they haven’t had chemo. Still others notice the problem when they’re getting hormone treatments. So the term chemo brain may not be completely accurate, but it’s the name that most people call it right now.

At this time, there’s no sure way to prevent chemo brain, and researchers are studying the problem. They are looking for more information to help prevent and treat chemo brain. But just being aware that problems with thinking can happen may help patients and their family members feel less isolated and alone.

If you have problems with thinking that interfere with your daily life, there are memory retraining exercises and programs, as well as other treatments that may help you retain or improve your memory and problem-solving abilities. You can also learn strategies that may help you cope with the loss of cognitive function. Ask your doctor to recommend a health professional who can help. You can learn more in our document called Chemo Brain.

What emotional effects can I expect?

Chemo can bring major changes to your life. It can affect your overall health, threaten your sense of well-being, disrupt your daily routines, and put a strain on your relationships. It’s normal and understandable for you and your family to feel sad, scared, anxious, angry, or depressed.

There are ways to cope with these emotional side effects, just as there are ways to cope with the physical side effects.

Finding support

You can draw support from many sources. Here are some of the most important ones:

Doctors and nurses

If you have questions or worries about your cancer treatment, talk with members of your health care team. If they’re unable to give you the help you need, they can refer you to other health professionals who can help you.

Counseling and mental health professionals

Counselors can help you express, understand, and cope with the emotions caused by cancer treatment. Depending on what you want and need, you might want to talk with a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, sex therapist, or member of the clergy.

Friends and family

Talking with friends or family members may help you feel a lot better. Often, they can comfort and reassure you in ways that no one else can. But you may find that you have to make the first move. Many people don’t understand cancer and may withdraw from you because they’re afraid of your illness. Others may worry that they’ll upset you by saying the wrong thing.

You can help relieve these fears by talking openly with others about your illness, your treatment, your needs, and your feelings. You can correct mistaken ideas and let people know that there’s no one “right” thing to say. Once people know they can talk with you honestly, they may be more willing and able to open up.

Go online or call us to get Talking With Friends and Relatives About Your Cancer. It gives you tips on how to maintain open, clear communication with those around you.

Support groups

Support groups are made up of people who are going through the same kinds of experiences you are. Many people with cancer find they can share thoughts and feelings with group members more easily than with anyone else. Support groups can be an important source of practical information about living with cancer, too.

You can also find support in one-to-one programs that match you with a person like you in age, gender, type of cancer, and so forth. You might talk with this person online, on the phone, or arrange visits.

Where to find information about support programs:

  • Your hospital’s social work department
  • Your local American Cancer Society office or by calling us at 1-800-227-2345

Coping tips for everyday life

  • Try to keep your treatment goals in mind. This can help you keep going on days when it gets rough.
  • Eating well is very important. Your body needs food to rebuild tissues and regain strength.
  • Learn as much as you want to know about your disease and its treatment. This can lessen your fear of the unknown and increase your feeling of control.
  • Exercise if you can and if your doctor says it’s OK. Using your body can help you fight fatigue, build your appetite, and help you feel better about yourself.
  • Keep a journal or diary. A record of your activities and thoughts can help you understand the feelings you have as you go through treatment. It may also help highlight questions you need to ask your doctor or nurse. You can use your journal to record side effects. This will help you talk about them with your doctor and nurse. Write down the steps you take to cope with side effects and how well those steps work, too. That way, you’ll know what worked best for you in case you have the same side effects again.
  • Try new hobbies or go back to one you loved before.
  • Learn new skills like painting, cooking, or a language.
  • Take it easy. You may not have as much energy as usual, so try to get as much rest as you can. Let the small stuff slide, and focus on the things that are most important to you.

Last Medical Review: 08/11/2014
Last Revised: 08/24/2014