Brain Fog – It Happens. Now What!

By Barbara Cunnings-Versaevel

Have you had those days when your brain just doesn’t function and your energy levels hit the floor? Join the club. I’m struggling with this problem today as I’m writing this article. So, I thought I would just address the issue since it does seem to follow after cancer treatment, even years later, obviously.

We identify this condition as ‘Brain Fog’ or ‘Chemo Brain’. In fact, at our Wellspring Calgary center, we run a course entitled ‘Brain Fog’, developed by Dr. Heather Palmer. When I engage in conversations with our members, this usually comes up as a topic when the brain fuzzes over and you can’t find that word or thought in your head that would normally show up.

It’s annoying, frustrating and can be very embarrassing. It seems to show up at the oddest times and in the most inappropriate circumstances. Today, it’s frustrating because I have so much to share and the thoughts are jumbled inside of me taking a Herculean effort to sort them out in a meaningful way. So, here goes. I’ll do my best.

What Are The Symptoms?

Difficulty in focusing on a task (i.e. this article) or concentration
Memory Gaps – it’s as though the brain has swallowed up that information or misfiled it somewhere you can’t find.
Trouble multi-tasking – getting distracted happens often
Drifting off somewhere during a conversation – you suddenly can’t remember what you were talking about or trying to say
Distracted thinking – going to get something and then can’t remember what it was.
Wrong words pop out – there is one word in your head and another comes out your mouth. Go figure.
Hazy thinking – it just takes so much energy to try and work through the fuzz that seems to be in your head

At one time or another, and still after all these years, I have experienced all of the above. Shortly after my cancer treatment, the symptoms were more pronounced and happened more frequently. As time went on, I thought my brain would regain its natural former state and I would be back to my healthy thinking person. NOT! It was a rude awakening to realize that treatment had definitely not only gotten rid of my cancer cells, but likely some of my brain cells in the bargain.

Going back to work became a challenge. When these symptoms showed up in meetings, general conversation, my work flow; my employers were not so tolerant. They didn’t get it. I’d put appointments in the wrong day or time. I’d type words that were not what I said in my head. I got tired and overwhelmed. It was very trying and hard on my self-esteem, pride, and created self doubt – would I get it right the next time.

Why Does This Happen?

There doesn’t seem to be any concrete evidence to explain this condition. It is acknowledged and there is reason to believe that it can be caused by a number of factors:

  • Cancer treatments
  • Low blood counts
  • Infection
  • Stress
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Hormone changes (e.g. menopause)
  • Hormone treatments
  • Anemia
  • Fatigue
  • Pain and/or drugs for pain
  • Lack of proper nutrition
  • Lack of sleep
  • Drugs for sleep or anxiety

All of the above are relative to dealing with cancer. Brain fog or chemo brain affects both men and women. I know for sure these days, my symptoms are worse when I’m tired and haven’t had a good night’s sleep. Stress will also create problems. Sometimes you are okay with a few of these causes, but one more will be the one to trip the switch. I used to find the same thing in dealing with migraine headaches.

Will You Always Have Brain Fog?

Not necessarily. Some people experience it for a short time after treatment and then recover normal function. For others, it might take a few more months. However, for some, it lasts much longer, even years, although less severe and again, brought on by one or more of the above factors.

This is one of the reasons some people find they are no longer able to return to the job or work that they did prior to cancer. Part time work then is an option. If that doesn’t work, it calls for a career change – or retirement. This is a time to acknowledge that life has to shift in order for you to heal and take care of yourself. Employers are concerned generally with the bottom line – profits. As much as they may care about you, they can’t ignore the business side of the equation.

How Can You Help Yourself?

1. Use devices or memory aids – technology – as reminders

a.) Timers – simple kitchen timers or electronics
b.) Calendars – paper or electronic (would be lost without mine)
c.) Track details for patterns of behaviour – meals, sleep patterns, etc.
d.) Keep notes and write things down – To Do Lists (I do this all the time) – Sticky Notes
e.) Get help – family and friends – gentle reminders
f.) GPS, maps, directions – or a picture.


2. Organization – Home, Office and Day

a.) Use a calendar or organizer – and check it regularly
b.) Develop regular routines so your body remembers automatically – a pattern, a habit
c.) Your space – make it easy to navigate and remember where things are  – a ‘home’ for everything, as my Mother always said


3. Strategies to Process Information

a.) Try repetition. It used to work most of the time in school. I find if I say it out loud, I’ll remember it more easily – or write it down as I’m visual.
b.) Get rid of what you don’t need – helps you concentrate on what is important.
c.) Group activities or items into like categories.
d.) Keep a journal or diary with details you want to remember
e.) Practise focusing for concentration and detail recall
f.) Relate information to what you already know


4. Lifestyle

a.) Get exercise – it brings oxygen to your brain helping it function so much better
b.) Eat healthy nourishing foods that support cell development and your immune system
c.) Sleep well – although this may be a challenge, learn ways to get this rest, even if you need to budget time in the day for meditation or a nap to make up for lost sleep in the night. Be wary of prescription sleeping pills. Find natural ways instead.
d.) Find activities that bring you joy and opportunities to socialize.
e.) Challenge your brain – do crossword puzzles, Sudoku, card games, etc.


In Summary

There are ways to move through this challenge. Some days you will do it better than others. Some days you just need to acknowledge that you aren’t coping and go do something fun. I like to read and go for a walk with my dog, Bear. We get out in nature, breathe fresh air, meet other people – a given when you walk a dog, and I stretch out my body. I always feel invigorated when I get back. The air seems to blow some of the cobwebs out of my brain.

I’ve also found that when I exercise regularly, my body craves wholesome food to restore itself – a great way to embrace a nutritious lifestyle. My body loves it and I feel good about myself.

Hopefully, you get some ideas about how to move through or acknowledge this part of the cancer journey. As we’ve talked about before, there is a new norm on the other side of diagnosis. Life does not carry on as before. We have changed. Our bodies have changed. Our thoughts are changed. We can see this as an opportunity to grow and make positive changes in our life. That’s what I did – after I whined a little bit. That’s normal, but not really productive. Life can offer wonderful gifts if we are open to seeing them.

With caring and understanding,


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