How to Help Your Loved One With 'Chemo Brain'

By Heather LaBruna

Forgetting the name of a longtime friend, blanking on how to balance a checkbook—these are possible signs of a chemotherapy side effect known as “chemo brain.” It’s often described as a mental fog experienced during or after treatment. In addition to being forgetful, a person may act confused, feel fatigued or be disorganized.

Help hold it together
Despite its name, experts aren’t sure whether it's the treatment, the cancer or a combination of the two that causes this condition. The good news: Whatever the cause, these changes are usually temporary and recede in the months to years following treatment. Until then, here's how you can help a loved one get through this difficult time.

  • Keep an eye on the details. Assist in setting up a thorough daily planner that displays all appointments, to-do lists, dates to remember, phone numbers, addresses and other crucial pieces of information. If necessary, follow up with email or phone reminders for important events.
  • Handle small tasks. Offer to make runs to the grocery store, help balance the checkbook or clean the house to help your loved one conserve mental and physical energy.
  • Stimulate brain activity. Purchase games or puzzles or sign up for a foreign-language class with your loved one to help keep the mind nimble.
  • Encourage relaxation time. Stress worsens memory problems. Suggest that your loved one write in a journal, listen to soothing music or meditate daily to decompress.
  • Put veggies on the menu. Research links the consumption of vegetables to maintaining optimal brain power as we age. Offer to pick up some in-season produce at your local farmer's market.
  • Be an exercise buddy. Volunteer to take a daily walk or join a dance class with your loved one. Staying active physically sharpens alertness, reduces fatigue and leaves people feeling good. Thirty minutes of exercise a day is ideal; just be sure your loved one gets an okay from a healthcare professional in advance to make sure they're up to it.
  • Ensure adequate shut-eye. Lack of sleep can compound memory problems and exacerbate feelings of fatigue. Offer to babysit or do other tasks so that your loved one can get plenty of rest.
  • Create a diary. Help your loved one maintain a diary or journal in order to track memory problems—at what time of day they occurred, what was happening at the time, what medications were taken. The record can help your loved one plan the day and not schedule important events during particular times. It’s also a great resource for their healthcare team.
Published September 2011

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