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Chemobrain - A Side Effect You Can't Forget

Been Through Chemotherapy and Have Trouble with Memory and Concentration?


Updated June 05, 2008

People who have been treated with chemotherapy have long reported difficulty in concentration, low attention spans, and general lack of memory. When reported to a doctor, their symptoms were often dismissed as mental fatigue, stress, or a side effect of other medications. Studies, however, show a strong link between chemotherapy and cognitive deficit.

Cognitive deficit is a medical term that encompasses a decline in concentration, the lowering of attention span, and difficulty with memory. In the cancer community, it is commonly referred to as "chemobrain."

Causes of Chemobrain

Although researchers have discovered a link between chemotherapy treatment and cognitive deficit, they have yet to identify the cause. We currently cannot determine why one person may develop chemobrain, while another patient does not.

Diagnosing Chemobrain

If you have been treated with chemotherapy in the past and are experiencing symptoms like low attention span, memory problems, and difficulty concentrating, tell your doctor. The doctor will then rule out any underlying cause such as stress, depression, medication side effects, and other possible causes.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 25 percent of people suffering from chemobrain symptoms do so because of their previous chemotherapy treatment. The remainder of people can attribute their symptoms to depression, fatigue, stress, medication side effects, and other causes.

Treating Chemobrain

Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for chemobrain. Some patients, however, are being prescribed medication for attention deficit disorder (ADD) and finding success.

In many cases, there only thing a patient can do is manage the symptoms of chemobrain. People suffering from chemobrain can manage it by:
  • using a daily organizer to make "to do" lists, record appointments and other important information
  • use a hand held voice recorder to record important conversations
  • eat nutritionally balanced meals
  • develop healthy patterns that include getting adequate, restful sleep
  • lighten work load or take small, frequent breaks


Tannock, Ian, Tim A. Ahles, Patricia A. Ganz, Frits S. van Dam. "Cognitive Impairment Associated With Chemotherapy for Cancer: Report of a Workshop." Journal of Clinical Oncology 22, No 11(2004): 2233-2239.

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