Brain Fog and Cancer

11 June 2018

Read full transcript

Expert interviewed:
Professor Janette Vardy, medical oncologist

Janette Vardy and Julie McCrossinThe thing about cancer is that it can make you feel a bit muddled.

You might be finding it hard to concentrate or starting to worry about your memory. Lots of people call this “chemo brain”. But is it actually caused by chemotherapy and what can you do about it?

In this episode of The Thing About Cancer, Julie tackles these questions and more with Professor Janette Vardy, a medical oncologist who has been studying these issues.

— Janette Vardy, medical oncologist

Listen to Brain Fog and Cancer now to learn more, or find more episodes here.

What is brain fog?

Julie and Janette explore the world of brain fog during and after cancer treatment. Many people affected by cancer say they have difficulty concentrating and remembering things, and multi-tasking can be a particular challenge.

These memory and thinking changes used to be called chemo brain, but now you might hear them called cancer brain or cancer fog or even cancer-related cognitive impairment.

This episode explores how thinking and memory can be affected at all the different stages of a cancer experience – at diagnosis, during treatment and after treatment has finished – and the best ways to cope with any changes.

How long it will last?

During her conversation with Julie, Janette points out that experiencing brain fog is often a part of the cancer experience – but she also emphasises that for many people the effects of brain fog will improve in the months after chemotherapy treatment has finished. For others, the effects can be ongoing, but there is support available.

— Anne, diagnosed with breast cancer


Symptoms vs impairment

Janette explains the difference between a cognitive symptom – how the person feels about their memory and thinking – and cognitive impairment – how the person performs in formal testing of their memory and thinking abilities.

Some studies show that people who have had cancer treatment can often still come up with the right answers, but their brains are working harder to do that – what Julie calls “pedalling faster”. And this can leave them feeling exhausted.

What can you do to reduce the effects of brain fog?

Janette encourages any form of mental stimulation – things like continuing to read, doing crosswords, learning a new language or musical instrument. And she says that aerobic exercise can help too.

For ongoing issues, there is evidence that online “brain training” games can help. And then there are what Janette calls compensatory strategies, ways to organise your life if brain fog is affecting you. For example, you can download apps that help you plan your day, use a pill organiser, and set the alarm on your smartphone to remind you to take medicines.

It is also important to tell your health care team and close family and friends if you are experiencing brain fog. They can provide extra support to help you navigate any changes.

— Phil, diagnosis with bowel cancer

Listen to Brain Fog and Cancer now to learn more, or find more episodes here.

Want more information or support? 

If you heard something mentioned in the podcast, you’ll find a link to it below. We’ve also added links to other sources of information and support.

From Cancer Council NSW

From other organisations

  • BrainHQ – a cognitive training program with short exercises developed by an international team of neuroscientists
  • Cognifit – a personalised program offering cognitive tests, memory games and brain training
  • American Cancer Society: Chemo Brain – information about possible changes in thinking and mood associated with chemotherapy side effects
  • Sydney Survivorship Centre – multidisciplinary team at Concord Hospital providing support to people after their initial cancer treatment, with regular workshops and research opportunities

Listen to Brain Fog and Cancer now to learn more, or find more episodes here.