The forgotten chemotherapy side-effect: supporting someone with chemo brain

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A woman meditatingWhen most people think about supporting someone going through chemotherapy to treat their cancer, the focus tends to be around the initial period and during the treatment itself. These are understandably very emotional times when your show of support is critical. Learning what to say to someone dealing with cancer is a good place to start, however, it should only be the beginning of your ongoing support that extends long after their radiation has ended. Family, friends and colleagues need to continue to be understanding towards cancer patients and survivors as they move through a non-life threatening, yet potentially challenging, phase of their lives due to potentially developing “chemo brain”.

Understanding chemo brain

Chemo brain refers to a side-effect that many post-chemotherapy cancer patients experience. Also known as chemotherapy-induced cognitive dysfunction/impairment, it causes increased forgetfulness or fuzziness from treatment-related changes to the brain. According to John Hopkins Medicine, these structural changes develop as a result of chemotherapy drugs crossing the blood-brain barrier. This can cause the post-chemo patient to experience heightened forgetfulness, concentration problems, or lower productivity and follow-through when multi-tasking. The key to being supportive of someone experiencing chemo brain is to understand how it can affect them and offering ways to reduce their anxiety. Imagine how you would feel if you constantly forgot meeting times or lost focus of no fault of your own!

Helping someone cope with chemo brain

When an employee or colleague returns to work after chemotherapy treatment, it is best to let them dictate what kind of help they expect or need from you – perhaps none at all. Nevertheless, as a manager you can strive to be considerate of the challenges that your employee may be experiencing, the same as anyone returning after an extended absence from their job. A manager could therefore consider ways to reduce the employee’s level of stress:

  • Ensure weekly meetings are held in set locations and at set times.
  • Assign the employee single tasks instead of multi-tasking projects.
  • Make clear meeting notes and assigned action items so that managers stay on top of the work and reduce the need to ask the employee to remember what transpired.
  • Do not dumb down the job! Most people returning to work after a leave of absence will want to feel that they still know what needs to be done, and that their contribution matters.
  • Reduce stress in the workplace for all employees and remind them that they can access confidential EAP counselling for any emotional stress that they are experiencing.

There is no one common way for chemotherapy patients to experience chemo brain. In fact, not all patients will experience it for the same duration or in the same manner. Therefore, managers should allow post-chemo patients to dictate any changes they may require to better adjust to their job. Equally important, managers themselves must remember that supporting an employee is a good philosophy whether it’s a post-chemotherapy patient returning to work or an employee returning after taking care of a loved one. It’s amazing what a little understanding and awareness can do to help someone transitioning back into the workforce – period.

By Talya Rotem

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