woman with headache

Many patients undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, specifically chemotherapy, experience diminished cognitive function – a term the cancer community refers to as chemo brain.

In general, chemo brain describes thinking and memory problems associated with chemotherapy. Patients faced with this common side effect often find difficulty with problem solving, following directions, expressing themselves or multitasking.

And while the exact cause of chemo brain is unknown, there are many other factors associated with cancer that may contribute to the mental fog.

According to Vincent Picozzi, MD, director of the Pancreas Center of Excellence at Virginia Mason Medical Center and member of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) Scientific and Medical Advisory Board (SMAB), these additional factors include stress, depression, pain or pain medications, electrolyte imbalances and anemia, among others.

For some patients, the symptoms associated with chemo brain last only a short time. But for others, the cognitive impairment can last for years, making it challenging to enjoy social activities, return to work or resume a life similar to the one before a cancer diagnosis.

To help patients better cope with chemo brain, Picozzi, who also serves as a physician in the division of hematology and oncology at Virginia Mason, offers the following tips.

6 Tips for Dealing with Chemo Brain  

  • Work with your medical team to address any other psychological or medical conditions (such as stress or depression)
  • Live a healthy lifestyle that includes adequate sleep and physical exercise, as appropriate
  • Avoid, when possible, central nervous system active medications – but first, discuss all treatments with your healthcare team
  • Exercise your brain – do puzzles, write, learn a new skill or trade
  • Utilize memory aids, like lists or sticky notes
  • Talk to your medical team about symptom management and supportive (palliative) care

PanCAN strongly recommends that symptom management and supportive (palliative) care should be provided early in your diagnosis as well as during and after treatment. Talk to your healthcare team if you are experiencing any new or worsening side effects or symptoms.

For more information about pancreatic cancer treatment, its side effects and supportive care, contact PanCAN Patient Services.