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How to Overcome “Chemo-Brain”

Bottom Line/HEALTH: How did you handle chemo-brain?
Hollye Jacobs, R.N.: Chemo-brain is so frustrating—everybody I talk to is disillusioned by it, frustrated by it and, many times, fearful of it, as I was. When I felt it coming on—there were periods when I had it all the time—I just reassured myself that these feelings I was having were a direct and proximate result from my treatment. I remember one time when I was literally driving home, I was on the freeway, and I didn’t remember how to get home. I pulled over to the side of the freeway and was a little freaked out by that, but I said OK, what’s my address? I remembered my address, and I put my address into my navigation system, and that directed me home. I think that when parts of our brain shut down, other parts sort of begin to work. It’s important when you’re really overwhelmed by chemo-brain to just stop…take a couple of really deep breaths…and acknowledge the fact that you’re going to be able to get through it—you just need to calm down and step back.
Bottom Line And how long did it take for it to mostly go away?
Jacobs: It takes a long, long time.
Bottom Line So patience is important.
Jacobs: It takes a long time. I mean I was a year and a half out, and I still had periods of time where I would have chemo-brain…or I would have acute bouts of it, where I would just forget everything. I would be talking to a friend of mine, and not remember her name, literally. And I would say, OK, this is chemo-brain, and sometimes I said it out loud to not feel like I was crazy. But it varies from person to person. One of the great things is there’s now a lot of research being done on chemo-brain. It’s being acknowledged as something that is very real, and people are looking at ways to deal with it as well. I did a lot of mental exercises…I did brain teasers…I did a lot of reading and then reading-comprehension exercises…I would do math problems. I would really try to exercise my brain, and that helped a lot. Another thing that helped me with my chemo-brain was actually physical exercise. I don’t know if scientifically this is valid or not, but from my perspective, when I exercise and have that fresh oxygen going to my brain, I always felt a little more clear and a little more functional.
Source: Hollye Jacobs, RN, MS, MSW, a palliative-care nurse and social worker based in Santa Barbara, California. She is a breast cancer survivor, mother of four and author of The Silver Lining: A Supportive and Insightful Guide to Breast Cancer (Atria).

Date: September 15, 2014 Publication: Bottom Line Health
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