Coping With Chemo Brain: Staying Sharp After Treatment

Pictured above is Caroline Wright, whose story is part of the CaringBridge How We Heal Series.

Chemo brain is often categorized as one of the most challenging long term side effects of chemotherapy. This side effect happens when people have difficulty concentrating, multitasking, and remembering details of their daily life. 

Because of this, it’s common for chemo brain to make people feel like they’ve lost control of their mind and wellbeing. If this is something you’re experiencing, know that it’s completely okay to feel frustrated, upset or impatient. Your body went through an intense treatment and sometimes the healing process can feel just as difficult. 

While chemo brain can’t be healed overnight, there are steps you can take to cope with the symptoms and improve your way of life. We gathered pieces of advice from CaringBridge members who have dealt with and overcome chemo brain. Through their stories, we hope you find the courage and strength to move forward in your healing journey. 

Play Cognitive Games & Puzzles

Playing puzzles and cognitive games can exercise different parts of your brain and help improve your concentration. Plus, they can be a fun and leisurely activity that brings you enjoyment and helps you cope with chemo brain. 

There are many games you can dabble with, including word searches, jigsaw puzzles, sudoku or even checkers. Try to find ones that appeal to you and play them to sharpen your mental abilities.

“I work crossword puzzles and other mind challenging games to sharpen my fog. It helps my chemo brain.”

Paulette D. 

Keep a Journal

Writing in any form can help you cope with chemo brain and may help you build concentration and focus. Many survivors enjoy keeping a journal on a regular basis for this reason. 

If you try keeping a journal, do it in a way that feels best for you. Remember, there are no rules to keeping a journal and you can do it as often or as little as you like. You can write lists, document events, compose poetry or simply jot down whatever you’re feeling. 

If you prefer typing over writing long-hand, CaringBridge has a free online journal that is easy to use. You can publicly share your healing journey with loved ones, or use it to write down private thoughts and feelings that no one else can see.

Write Yourself Notes

Writing notes each day can help you remember things as you deal with any memory challenges. Keep some sticky notes or a notepad handy, or simply use a notes app in your phone as you cope with chemo brain.

You can also write yourself notes of encouragement. Having chemo brain can feel frustrating and it’s important to cheer yourself on. Stick them where you’ll see them each day, like on your mirror, and read them when you need a personal boost.

“I leave notes to remind me of what I need to accomplish each day. No one mentioned anything to me about chemo brain, when I’ve mentioned it the answer I’ve gotten is it may get better and it may not!”

Darlene B. 

“Post-it notes are my best friend.”

Dave N. 

Keep Personal Calendars

If writing notes isn’t your thing, a personal calendar or planner can help immensely. From jotting down medical appointments to keeping on top of daily tasks, you can use it to keep track of your day. You can even mark items off as you do them so you don’t have to worry about remembering whether you finished them.

“I have big calendars and write all things down. I have am pm marked on each day and mark them as I feed my dogs and take my meds.”

Billie Jo H.A.

“My wife suffers from chemo brain, at first it bothered me so now I make sure everything is written down. We use giant calendars, dry erase boards and cork bulletin boards. It does not eliminate it but makes it more manageable.” 

Wayne R.

Talk With Others Going Through Similar Journeys 

woman (Jen Ndegwa) types on a laptop
Pictured above is Jen Ndegwa, whose story is part of the CaringBridge How We Heal Series.

Everyone’s healing journey is different, but know you are not alone. Many survivors have coped with chemo brain and can validate your experience while offering inspiration. Connecting with someone who has gone through something similar can be helpful and encouraging.

If you’re recovering from breast cancer, Reach to Recovery by ACS is a wonderful resource. This free program allows you to create an online profile and talk with other survivors who understand what you’re going through. These volunteers can listen, answer questions and offer support. 

“I had people to talk to and with this learning I put together my method of getting me through it. Prayer was always there.”

Shirley C. 

Care for Your Physical Health

A huge part of recovery and dealing with chemo brain is to nurture yourself physically. Eat wholesome foods that nourish you and drink plenty of water. If you can, try a little physical movement and get plenty of rest. Check in with your care team as well to see if they have any wellness recommendations.

“Stay really well hydrated, eat a little something every few hours, eat healthy food and cut back on naughty food as much as you can!”

Alice C. 

“Chemo is SO very hard on your body. Nutrients and vitamins are a must!”

Dedra G. 

Be Patient With Yourself

Coping with chemo brain can feel discouraging and you’ll have days where you feel disheartened. When this happens, try to give yourself some grace. Be patient and compassionate with yourself, just as you would to a loved one. 

Healing journeys take time and all you can do is take it day by day. Be gentle with yourself, acknowledge any progress you make and trust that eventually it will get better. 

“For me it lasted for quite a long time. I have lived 6 1/2 years with cancer. For which I am thankful. The fog in my mind was awful. I could not think or remember well. One day my mind just started to clear and I began to feel more like myself. I can actually enter into a conversation and sound pretty intelligent. It is a long road and I never found any help. Maybe someone else found help. I also pray a lot.”

Karen C. 

“Out of the blue I just began to feel clearer and more focused. I had become very quiet during my fog, because it took so much to think of what to say. Now, I can carry on a conversation, I still forget words and need to think hard, but nothing like the complete fog. My mind is clearer and I am more like myself.”

Karen C. 

“I thought it was me and getting older. 2 years cancer free and I’m finally getting some energy back. Still forget things, eventually it comes to me. I write lots of notes!”

Cynthia S. 

How Do You Cope? 

We hope these ideas can help you cope with chemo brain and support your healing journey. If you or someone you know has experienced chemo brain, we’d love to hear your story. Feel free to share your ideas with our readers in the comments below. You may just have the thing someone needs to hear to feel encouraged and inspired.

Don’t Go Through Your Health Journey Alone

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  • Willy N

    This is just a reminder that some of us older folks, caregivers and others, are going through frequent, near daily “Chemo Brain” experiences without having cancer or any chemotherapy. The same observations and suggestions apply.
    Bill N

  • Sandra Randolph

    I believe my forgetfulness is due to chemo brain. I for appointments if I have more than one in a given day. I have to discipline myself to actually do better using my phone and other calendar I have throughout the day. I use online jigsaw puzzles and games. suduko, painting, singing yes singing because you have to remember the words to the songs and most importantly is some alone time, rest and plenty of fluids. Hopes this helps.

  • Elaine Foster

    This helped me after I got out of the Hospital. I would go sit down by a table and do “Word Puzzles”. I do this in the afternoon. This helped me remember spelling of words. Later as I improved I began typing on the computer.
    Also in the afternoon, I take naps. I feel stronger that I can wash dishes. As time went by, I was able to put my pierced earrings in my ears.
    I am finally back to driving my car. Cooking meals.
    The best thing was being able to go to Rehab. My Husband Bob, helped me through 8 weeks of learning.
    The Rehab Center at Immanuel Hospital did a wonderful job teaching patients to get back to LIFE. Thanks.

  • Heather

    Excellent! In 1993 , after I had 2 years of chemo , chemo brain prevented my ability to do my supervisory job. Nobody told me about chemo brain and I was sure I was going insane. I lived silently with this, so nobody would know I was losing my mind. The fear was terrible, and the loneliest time of my life. Thankyou for this article. There needs to be much more education for patients on this issue

  • KC Wong

    Great tips! As a caregiver, I have to remember not to get impatient when my spouse forgets things. I kid that sometimes he has “husband brain” (when he asks what’s for dinner for the third time). He already is good at making lists for himself (always has been), and we compare our results on the Daily Jumble, at his prompting. I think it also helps to let him know that some of the stuff he’s making lists for (what medication he took and when) is great to track because there is so much to remember. He sees me writing things down too and sees me referring to them, so that means it IS a lot of stuff to remember, so I think that also helps him not feel bad to write things down.