Strategies to Reduce Mental Clouding
Chemo brain commonly involves cognitive changes including a reduction in short term memory, speed of information processing, and a limited ability to organize information.1 During my chemotherapy, I had noticed my memory skills were not up to par. It seemed like I could not remember whether I had closed the garage door or turned off the oven. I needed to go back and check on things as I could not immediately remember.
Brain fog or chemo brain?
This mental fog is often referred to as “chemo brain.” According to the American Cancer Society, up to 75 percent of patients who have chemotherapy may experience chemo brain.2 It can also be described as memory lapses, difficulty remembering details, and inability to multitask as one once did before treatment.1 No exact cause has been found but the associated factors include immune system changes, hormonal fluctuations, side effects of various drugs, overall fatigue, and chronic stress.
From a personal perspective, difficulty with recent memory, especially numbers and misplacing objects, had become a problem. Other patients have described the inability to think as fast as they once did, difficulty remembering steps of a task once easily performed, confusing dates and appointments, or fumbling for the right word or phrase.
These symptoms can be frustrating and embarrassing, and I was reluctant to admit them. Recent research has recommended some strategies, several of which I found very effective.2
Tips for managing chemo brain
Mindfulness and meditation
Yoga is an example, as it helps the ability to pay attention.
Even five minutes of mild activity can improve mental fusion.
Rely on memory aides
Use a notebook, take advantage of a computer-based calendar. Learn the features of your smartphone such as built-in alerts that can help you stay on track. I have found this to be a great assist. I immediately write a note to myself on the phone to remind me of things to buy, cards to send, or appointments to make. I even add passwords as I also forget when they are updated.
Set up your environment to boost concentration
Clear everything off your desk except what you are working on. Set up a to-do list as a priority list of tasks to be accomplished.
Rehearse to remember
If you read something out loud, such as names or facts, you are less likely to forget.
Get into a routine
I place keys, files, my phone and other items in the same place each day. This reduces my “where is it?” stress. At home, I have a spot designated as my launching pad and place everything that I may need for the next day. I have discovered a corner in my kitchen for this purpose. It reduces my early morning stress and allows me to focus and concentrate. Try to maintain a regular schedule as fatigue can affect performance.
Take frequent breaks
By breaking tasks into manageable portions, you can take a break each time one part is completed.
Be aware of your stress level and work to lower it
I have learned that excess stress by itself can impair my performance and thinking skills. Deep breathing techniques have helped me relax during these times.
My favorite strategy is the use of humor when possible. Try not to take yourself so seriously. Laughter releases tension and will allow you time to refocus on the task.
The symptoms of chemo brain may improve after the chemotherapy is completed. I still have difficulty with numbers and tasks immediately done. Fortunately, the above strategies continue to help me deal with residual chemo brain symptoms.
Have you met another blood cancer patient?