Cognitive Function and Chemo Brain

Feeling fuzzy? Brain games and other resources can boost your cognitive function

Cancer patients in treatment and survivors sometimes experience a change in cognitive function as a long-term effect of therapies, including chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.
When a patient goes back to his or her life after treatment — attending high school or university, rejoining the work force — new, unexpected problems can arise.  Difficulties with attention and focus, processing speed and executive function (decision-making, planning, organization, prioritizing tasks, emotional control and behavior regulation) can make learning and overall readjustment to daily living especially challenging.
“There are cognitive impairments that make those tasks that are already hard even harder,” said Natalie C. Kelly, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.-C.N., clinical neuropsychologist at City of Hope. She uses a clever musical analogy to explain the phenomenon to her patients: Core components of cognition such as language, memory and processing speed are like the members of the orchestra, and executive functioning is the conductor that tells the different aspects how and when to play together to meet any specific outcome. “In survivors, this is a very common area of difficulty,” she said, “so they don’t learn as effectively as they used to, or it takes longer to learn because of those executive issues.” Read more

Other cognitive changes can occur in the form of:

  • Short-term memory loss
  • Trouble thinking clearly
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling “fuzzy”
  • Difficulty with numbers
  • Trouble finding the right words or remembering names
Studies show that between 46 and 80 percent of cancer patients experience cognitive symptoms, with about 30 percent of survivors continuing to experience symptoms long term.

You can strengthen cognition on your own through memory games, word puzzles and reading. Creating lists and routines for everyday tasks, including taking medications at the same time or putting your keys in the same place, can help patients cope.

Additionally, tackling tasks that involve focus and concentration during your peak energy time, whether it’s in the morning or evening, can help.

Tips for self-management of cognitive function:

  • Good sleep habits
  • Daily physical exercise
  • Brain-training exercises, such as word puzzles or math quizzes
  • Relaxation or meditation
  • Making lists
  • Not rushing or multitasking
  • Tackling tasks one at a time
City of Hope’s Occupational Therapy department offers rehabilitation therapies to boost cognitive function. While the program is aimed toward survivors with severe cognitive changes unable to manage activities at work or home, it can also help patients with less debilitating cognitive changes.

Ask your doctor for a referral if you are having cognitive difficulties; referrals to neuropsychologists are also available when necessary.