Karen Reynolds

Seven ways I combat ‘chemo brain’

In 2012, Karen R. was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. She was treated at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) with eight rounds of chemotherapy, followed by a lumpectomy and then six weeks of daily radiation therapy. Her memory challenges became apparent when her sister would follow up with information given during appointments. The pair would recap the appointment on the drive home, but when they talked later that night, Karen often didn't remember much of what had been discussed earlier. Karen’s care team connected her with CTCA® Speech-Language Pathologist Jennifer Cargile, who helped her manage the symptoms of what she soon learned was commonly known as “chemo brain.” Karen shares what works for her to help manage the memory challenges.

  1. Be gentle with yourself! I wanted to end with this point, but I feel it's most important to mention it first. We often get frustrated with ourselves for our inability to perform as we feel we should, but try not to be hard on yourself about it. We can perform; it just takes a little bit more effort and/or a different approach.
  2. Don't dismiss your struggles. While you once could remember how to do some tasks effortlessly, like easily finishing your thoughts or finding your car keys, that may not be the case right now. Repeat after me: It’s OK. Get comfortable sharing with your care team everything you’re experiencing during treatment. You may think it's a normal sign of aging or that it's a little thing not worth mentioning, but it may signal something more important to your care team. They can then point you to resources to help support you. I had never heard of a cognitive therapist until I experienced chemo brain and was directed to a resource for support.
  3. Recognize and accept the blind spot. In other words, acknowledge that your memory challenges are happening. You can only get help or fix something once you admit there’s an issue. When you find, or others point out to you, that you’re forgetting or not processing information, try not to get defensive. Be glad someone pointed it out, then seek support to help manage it. 
  4. Identify and partner with an experienced resource. Seek a resource that specializes in cognitive therapy. Share your experiences and challenges, big and small. Try to be open to his or her suggestions.
  5. Get organized. Find a system that works for you when it comes to managing notes, to do lists, prescriptions, appointments, questions, etc. Write down everything in one place. Find a tablet or notebook (or whatever system works best for you) and keep it with you at all times. Structure can ease the stress of memory challenges, but remember to find the tools that work for you. For example, going fully digital was an abysmal fail for me. Things were never where I thought I put them or where they should be. Paper isn’t a relic. I carry a hardbound notebook and sometimes text myself information for safe keeping. The simple practice of writing it down often helps me retain information. Use it if that works best for you!
  6. Stay active. Whether it’s swimming, yoga or a dance class, keep your body moving. Getting out there and remaining active stimulates the senses and forces your brain to engage.
  7. Leverage technology where you can. For almost all my driving activities, I relied on Waze (a navigational tool). I also use organizational and note-taking tools and features, such as Calendar, Notes, as well as the dictation and recording features Evernote and OneNote. Lastly, I downloaded games and brain-exercise apps on my phone or tablet. I play games, do crossword puzzles, Sudoku, etc., to exercise, engage and stimulate my brain.