Chemo Brain And How To Treat It

My brain is back.

It’s like the sun coming out after a week of rain. Except it’s been raining for over two years. The return of my full cognitive function hasn’t been as sudden as a change in the weather, but the impact on my mood has been as dramatic.

It’s like discovering I’ve been living in just one room and that my home has three storeys. It’s like discovering I’ve been driving around in first gear and my car has five gears. With hindsight, I realise how badly my cognitive functioning was effected by treatment, although living through it I probably wasn’t cognisant of how impaired I really was (and this might be one of the few benefits of chemo brain).

I know this condition has a huge impact on the quality of life of so many survivors, so I thought I’d share my best advice for recovery.

First of all, understand that as far as researchers have been able to determine, it’s not exclusively caused by chemotherapy. While we all call it ‘chemo brain’ or ‘chemo fog’ the correct description is ‘mild cognitive impairment following cancer treatment’.

The causes haven’t been clearly identified but it’s a real condition, and it can be picked up with imaging technology. In one study, breast cancer survivors not only required a larger area of their brain to respond to a question, they used more energy to do so. In another, the resting metabolic rate of the brain was slower.

So the first bit of good news is you’re not imagining things. That inability to remember your phone number, the name on the tip of your tongue or the misspoken phrase are all manifestations of ‘chemo brain’. So is a general feeling of fogginess, mental sluggishness and difficulty learning anything new.

Coping with it usually involves implementing the kind of strategies they give people with early dementia; keep lists; use a calendar and a notebook; have one spot where you always put the things you lose regularly. All of this helps but what we really want is an effective way to hasten our recovery.

The really good news is that recovery is not only possible, most people find it relatively easy to achieve.

Apart from physical damage caused by treatment, chemo brain might also be caused by a range of other factors. The main suspect is anxiety, which can cause cognitive impairment all on its own. Hands up anyone that managed to get through cancer without feeling anxious. Depression is also a common after effect of treatment and yes, it’s also characterised by brain fog. If you suspect you’ve got ongoing issues with either anxiety or depression it’s important to discuss this with your doctor.

Vitamin D deficiency could also play a part because most of us had to avoid the sunshine for several months due to either chemotherapy or radiation. If you didn’t take your vitamin D supplements and treatment just got you out of the habit of sitting in the sun then an improvement could be as close as eating breakfast outside every day. Special note here to avoid supplements with calcium in them because they’ve been shown to be a health risk and to favour sun over supplements when you can because the type of vitamin D your body manufactures in response to sunlight is more beneficial.

If you’re experiencing serious mental impairment it’s also worth asking your doctor to give you a simple cognitive test to rule out dementia or any other illness that might be impacting your cognitive function. Don’t just assume it’s a result of treatment.

Having discussed chemo brain with a number of survivors there’s now been several that have overcome their problems by dealing with anxiety, depression or vitamin D deficiency so consider those first. Once you’ve ruled out other causes there’s still plenty you can do to reclaim your brain.

Here’s my top six recommendations for treating chemo brain. Many of these are things we should all be doing to improve our health and boost our immune system so adding them into your daily routine should bring a whole lot of benefits.

Please treat this list as a menu rather than a prescription. Choose what appeals to you and try it for a few months before you rule it out. And please share any other ideas you have about this condition.

  1. Fasting (aka The Fast Diet or 5:2 calorie restricted eating)
    What it is: an eating strategy where you limit your calories to 500 on two days each week.
    Why it might help: Fasting triggers autophagy, the body’s natural mechanism for cleaning up dead and damaged cells. Even people that haven’t been through cancer treatment regularly report improved mental clarity when they adopt this way of eating.
    My experience: My cognitive function had been improving over time since I finished treatment but my biggest step forward coincided with switching to this way of eating. Of course it’s possible that this shift was coincidental so I’d be very interested to hear from anyone else that tries 5:2 or some other fasting regime and notices a brain boost. There are lots of good reasons for cancer survivors to consider fasting in any case.
  2. Yoga (Seriously, what isn’t yoga good for?)
    What it is: an ancient practice that links physical exercise with breathing and mindfulness
    Why it might help: Research shows that yoga has a profound effect on our physiology, including our cognitive function and our ability to deal with anxiety. Some of the benefits are undoubtedly associated with the increase of oxygen to the brain but yoga has such significant benefits over other forms of exercise that it’s clear they’re only scratching the surface of what’s going on inside us when we practice it.
    My experience: I’ve written before about the profound impact yoga has had on my ability to deal with treatment and my recovery. The benefits have ranged from helping me to deal with anxiety and pain to preventing nausea. Yoga helped me to restore my energy when treatment drained it and played a big part in my recovery from surgery thanks to my physical strength and flexibility.
    If you don’t find yoga appealing then exercise will also help you to recover your brain. I just don’t think it will achieve this as quickly or as well as yoga.
  3. Mindfulness
    What it is: a practice of focusing on the present moment and doing one thing at a time. Some people use meditation to learn mindfulness and others learn it by just focusing on whatever they are doing right now.
    I use both. Mindfulness for me includes listening to recorded meditations on my iPod and paying close attention to whatever I’m doing during the day. Even the washing up can be a meditation.
    Why it might help: Mindfulness trains your brain to still the ‘monkey mind’ that jumps from one thing to another. It also helps to reduce anxiety which might be a major contributor to cognitive impairment.
    My experience: Mindfulness has helped me to stay calm and to be present. My mind functions better when it’s calm.
  4. What you put in your mouth
    What it is: Attention to good nutrition, good hydration and avoiding those things you know aren’t good for you.
    Why it might help: Food and water are fuel for our bodies and the functioning of our bodies is directly linked to the quality of that fuel. We know that children show huge cognitive improvement when their diet is improved and that it also has an impact on mood and behaviour. Recent research into the addition of fresh vegetables into the diets of older people also demonstrated improved cognitive function. We are what we eat.Water is also critical to healthy brains. I noticed in hospital that my low blood pressure was immediately remedied by drinking a glass of water and our brains rely upon a good blood supply to function.

    Avoiding those things we know are unhealthy, including alcohol, highly processed food and high sugar food will also have an impact on our brains. People with allergies and food sensitivities will know that a small change in diet can mean a big improvement in health.

    My experience: My diet was pretty good before I was diagnosed. It’s even better now. I’ve significantly reduced all of those things I know are unhealthy while still allowing for the occasional treat. We predominantly eat organic food and I cook from scratch. I’ve cut right back on gluten after I noticed (thanks to The Fast Diet) that it made me tired and bloated. I still need to work on drinking enough water every day but I’ve improved on that score too. It comes as no surprise to me that the better I eat, the better I feel.

  5. Iodine Supplements
    Regular followers will know that I’d rather get my nutrition from food than supplements but based on my own research and an examination of my diet I determined that there was a possibility that I was iodine deficient. I don’t eat a lot of fish and while dairy used to be a good source of iodine, changes in farming practices mean it’s no longer used. The clearing of the fog has coincided with the introduction of iodine into my diet so it’s worth considering. Please let me know if you have similar results. As always, I strongly recommend you discuss any supplementation with your medical team, particularly if you’re in active treatment.
  6. Sleep
    Sleep is the great healer. When I was in treatment it was common for me to sleep in excess of ten hours a day. As my health has improved my need for sleep has declined but I still regularly get eight hours. Sleep is such an important part of recovery that I’m dedicating all of my next blog post to it.

Here are some other things you might like to try:

  1. Learning a language or a musical instrument
    If you’ve read any of the recent research into neural plasticity you’ll already know about this one. It’s long been thought that the only time when the brain was ‘plastic’ and able to create new neural pathways was during early childhood. Now it’s clear that we can keep building new connections in our brain for the whole of our lives. The quickest and most effective way to do this is to learn something new. Languages and music are particularly good, but learning anything new will help. A number of people have told me they’re finding ‘luminosity’ (a web site that charges you a monthly fee to play ‘brain training’ games) very helpful. You could also try puzzle books or free online puzzle sites.
  2. Get creative
    Creative pursuits are good for your brain and your mood. Pick something you really enjoy and dedicate a bit more time to it. It might be gardening or scrapbooking or making furniture out of scrap wood. It really doesn’t matter what you choose as long as it gets you making lots of happy choices. There’s a huge surge in the popularity of colouring in books for adults at the moment. I wish these had been around when I had chemo. They’re very relaxing and great fun, combining creativity with mindfulness.
  3. Take a holiday
    A break from your usual routine can be good for your brain. It doesn’t need to be expensive or involve air travel. It might just be a weekend visiting a good friend. The aim here is to find something restful and calming. If the thought of packing a bag and going anywhere makes you anxious then stay home.
  4. Have a cuddle
    Not that anyone needs an excuse, but cuddles are good for your brain. They increase oxytocin levels and this helps you to feel calmer and happier. You can cuddle a person or a pet. You can cuddle a partner a friend or a child.
  5. Have a massage
    It’s a combination of cuddling, mindfulness and increasing oxygenation. It’s the triple whammy of treatments when it comes to helping you restore cognitive function. You can also credit it with reducing anxiety, giving you a break from your routine and helping you to feel good about your body. There are now massage therapists that specialise in treating people going through or recovering from cancer treatment, so look up ‘oncology massage’ and treat this as a necessary part of your recovery (rather than an occasional treat).

Finally, don’t give up. There’s no upper limit to how well we can be. Recovery from chemo brain is certainly possible and most of the things that help us to achieve it are things we should probably be doing anyway.