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What techniques can be used to manage the chemotherapy side effect known as chemo brain?

Chemo brain and chemo fog are terms used by patients to refer to the cognitive dysfunction that occurs when undergoing chemotherapy. Symptoms include difficulties with memory, attention, and organization and a slowing of information processing. Patients experiencing chemo brain may complain of difficulty multitasking, forgetfulness, disorganization, and slowness in performing cognitive tasks. These symptoms typically begin shortly after initiation of treatment and may persist for years after completing treatment. This effect is noted with cytotoxic chemotherapy as well as hormonal and targeted treatments, with reported incidence rates ranging from 15% to 70%.

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Risk factors for chemo brain are not well established. As these symptoms can persist for years beyond treatment, chemo brain can have a significant effect on long-term quality of life. This subject is increasingly becoming the focus of researchers and patient advocacy groups. While studies are underway, there are currently no medications used to manage chemo brain.

Patients complaining of the above symptoms should be encouraged to discuss these symptoms with their oncologist. Other causes of these symptoms, such as depression, fatigue, and menopausal status, should be ruled out or managed appropriately. Management strategies are tailored to the patient’s specific symptoms. Practical measures such as making lists, decreasing distractions during the workday, minimizing multitasking, and improving organization may help to increase functioning. ONA

Lisa Thompson is assistant professor, Department of Clinical Pharmacy, University of Colorado Denver School of Pharmacy, Aurora, Colorado.