Coping with ‘chemo brain’

Cancer patients push for studies to determine the effects of chemotherapy on brain function

by Brian Carlton and Kara Lopp

For Marcy Stewart, life changed when she started undergoing chemotherapy. Suddenly it was harder to remember things, be it a book she just read or what time to pick up her daughter.

“At first I just figured it was fatigue, I just assumed I was physically tired,” Stewart said. The 58-year-old Monroe resident, a physical therapist by training,started wondering if it was something other than exhaustion after surgery. Weeks after her chemo stopped, the effects started to lessen, which is when she learned about the problem known as “chemo brain”.

Local healthcare professionals say the medical world is slowly starting to acknowledge that “chemo brain” is a real side effect from chemotherapy treatments and patients can suffer from its effects years after treatment stops. The cancer-fighting chemicals in chemotherapy can cause patients to struggle with short-term memory, multi-tasking and focusing on the tasks at hand.

“You feel like you’re in slow motion sometimes,” Stewart said. Diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer in August 2010, Stewart had undergone chemo to shrink the tumor, before it could be removed. In order to remove it, doctors took out a portion of her liver, gall bladder, spleen and part of her pancreas. Once she went back for additional chemo treatments, Stewart noticed the symptoms again, causing her to search for answers.

Treating ‘Chemo brain’

That’s where nurse Pat Nebus comes in. A cancer nurse for 30 years, Nebus is part of Presbyterian Healthcare’s  Strides to Strength program at the Presbyterian Cancer Center in Charlotte. There she helps cancer patients, and survivors, deal with the fatigue and “chemo brain” caused by chemotherapy. Exercise is a key component of the program.

“‘Chemo brain’ is something that wasn’t taken seriously for a long-time. A lot of people had brushed it off that your anxious because of the diagnosis, but studies are showing there really is something going on chemically in the brain,” Nebus said. “The  (cancer) survivors themselves have really for pushed this. They didn’t really know what was causing it.”

Many cancer patients are still in the dark about “chemo brain,” Nebus said.

“They don’t know what’s going on they just feel that everything seems to be a struggle,” she said.

Stewart knows the effects can be frustrating. She talked about having to set alarms and write notes, in order to remember things.

“I’ve set alarms a day ahead,” Stewart said, using the example of picking her daughter up after school recently. “While heading over, I found myself wondering if I was going too soon. I had to look and confirm the time in my phone.”

The mother of three set up a routine, programming important events into her blackberry, two or three days beforehand. She also keeps items in certain spots around the house, to make sure she can find them.

Some things however, Stewart has stepped away from, feeling uncomfortable post chemo.

“It’s very overwhelming to get on the internet and search, because you’re already processing things slower,” Stewart said. “The idea of reading sometimes can also be overwhelming.”

At the cancer center, Nebus encourages exercise – for all her patients.

“There are very few people who can’t exercise no matter how sick they are,” she said. “It helps with fatigue and nausea, but it also helps with the mental capacity to feel like they can handle it. Aerobic exercise increases alertness and helps with your mood.”

She also gives tips such as: writing things down; use a voice recorder to leave yourself a reminder; set an alarm to remind you when to take medications or do other tasks.

And, above all, remember one thing about “chemo brain”: “Although it’s frustrating, it’s a common experience,” Nebus said.

Struggling after chemo?


Join Registered Nurse Pat Nebus at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, June 2 at the Presbyterian Cancer Rehabilitation and Wellness Center, 125 Baldwin Ave. in Charlotte, for an information-filled session to learn proven and effective ways to reduce cancer-related fatigue and ways to cope with “chemo brain.” The event is free, but advanced registration is required.


To register, call 704-384-6953

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