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NCCN Survivorship Guidelines & Your Cancer Journey, Part 5: Cognitive Function

By PearlPoint Nutrition Services May 17, 2013Pearls of Wisdom Blog

Many cancer survivors report mental fogginess during and after treatment. This change in cognitive function commonly manifests as short-term memory lapses, such as forgetting common details, names, and words. Other issues may include trouble concentrating or multitasking, and taking longer to complete routine tasks. Though growing evidence supports the validity of cancer-related cognitive impairment, there is limited understanding around the subject and a lack of assessment tools to guide its management. New survivorship guidelines, announced by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network in March, recognize this common concern as a vital one to address in post-treatment care.

Although it’s commonly referred to as “chemo brain,” the causes of cognitive dysfunction extend beyond chemotherapy. While chemotherapy and radiation may contribute to temporary cognitive changes, especially in patients with treatment administered directly to the central nervous system, physical side effects such as fatigue, sleep problems, or nutritional deficiencies may also play a role. Additionally, the emotional effects of cancer, including anxiety, depression, and stress, can impact cognitive function.

Though the cause is not always clear, it’s important for survivors to understand that the effect is real and that there are ways to manage these changes in cognition. You should also report any changes or difficulties to your physician for examination and monitoring. Here are eight tips for improving cognitive function:

  • Use an organizer: Keep track of your appointments and to-do lists in a notebook or a daily planner so all your reminders are in one place.
  • Avoid multitasking: Minimize distractions when you are working on a project so that you may more easily focus on it.
  • Reduce stress: Find a way to relax daily through yoga, a walk, or meditation.
  • Exercise your body and your brain: Engage in regular physical activity as well as in mental exercises such as working on puzzles and reading.
  • Limit use of alcohol: Avoid substances that alter cognition.
  • Eat smart: Proper nutrition is essential for brain power. Eat powerful “mind” foods such as fish (rich in omega-3 fatty acids), dark leafy greens (high in iron), fresh fruit and vegetables (filled with antioxidants), and whole wheat and oats (fuels your brain).
  • Get plenty of rest: Sleep is necessary for memory and concentration. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing trouble sleeping.
  • Be honest: Recognize your limitations and ask your family, friends, and doctor for help if you need it.

Changes in memory and brain function can be distressing, but many survivors share the same experience.

Blog Author: Kristen Kimmel
PearlPoint Cancer Support Staff

Author PearlPoint Cancer Support Staff

PearlPoint Nutrition Services is a program of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS).

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