So what is it?
According to the experts … IT DOES EXIST! If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms the likelihood is, you have Chemo Brain!
- Forgetfulness – do you have trouble recalling simple things like names and dates and even common words?
- Concentration – are you finding it difficult to maintain focus on what you’re doing?
- Short attention-span – do you often find yourself ‘spacing out’?
- Multi-tasking – having trouble doing more than one thing at a time?
- Slower thinking – are you more disorganized or take longer to do things?
Chemo brain will appear during treatment and continue for a time afterwards. Most people will return to normal within weeks or sometimes a few months after treatment. Although for some patients, chemo may have longer term implications.
A study, conducted at the University of Illinois and published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, set out to investigate the effects of chemo brain on humans over a longer period of time … by studying mice. We understand that many people don’t agree with testing on animals, no matter the purpose, but we thought that this study was worth mentioning because it does shed some light on the potential long-term effects of chemo.
Justin Rhodes, a psychology professor who helped to conduct the study said, “Earlier research has shown that the intense physical toll of chemotherapy accounts for the short-term deficits in cognitive ability seen in chemo brain. The question is, after patients have completely recovered from the acute assault of chemotherapy, many months or years later, do they still have cognitive impairments?"
The mice were given exercises that tested their memories. Mice that received chemotherapy were found to take substantially longer to learn the task and when theire brains were examined they found they created 26% less hippocampal neurons during the course of treatment, and 14 % fewer in the 3 months directly afterward. 3-months for a mouse corresponds to around 10 years in human terms.
But although this study does indicate that the effects of chemotherapy may indeed lead to long-term problems, it was conducted on mice… not humans. A long-term research study, tracking humans instead of mice, is required before we will know for sure!
Why does it happen?
Doctors call chemo brain fog many things, such as cancer treatment-related cognitive impairment, cancer-therapy associated cognitive change, or post-chemotherapy cognitive impairment. No one knows precisely why it occurs. People tend to blame the chemo drugs, but studies suggest there may be more than one cause of chemo brain, especially for short-term symptoms. These include:
- The cancer itself
- Other drugs used as part of treatment, such as steroids, anti-nausea, or pain medicines
- Surgery and the drugs used during surgery (anesthesia)
- Low blood counts
- Sleep problems
- Tiredness (fatigue)
- Hormone changes or hormone treatments
- Other illnesses, such as diabetes or high blood pressure
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Patient age
- Stress, anxiety, worry, or other emotional pressure
What can you do to cope?
Firstly, try not to stress … although not pleasant, it is a normal symptom of chemo and most people will recover as their health improves. But on a more practical level here are a few things you can try to mitigate the problem:
- Keep a daily planner such as on a tablet or smartphone - put everything on it including appointments, medicine you need to take and any tasks you know you need to do
- Leave yourself notes – write on a white board or stick post-it notes somewhere you can’t miss to remind you
- Exercise your brain - take a class, do word puzzles, or learn a new language
- Go for a walk - regular physical activity is not only good for your body, it also improves your mood, makes you feel more alert, and stops you feeling so tired
- Eat your veggies – everything your parents told you was true, eating veg is linked to keeping your brain power
- Follow a routine – don’t try to be too adventurous at this time, try to stick to the same daily schedule where possible
- Pick a certain place for commonly lost objects – this one’s useful for the entire family, leave your keys, wallet or purse in the same place
- Don’t try to multi-task - focus on one thing at a time
- Tell others - friends and loved ones can help with daily tasks to cut down on distractions and help you save mental energy
- Track your memory problems - keep a diary of when you notice problems and what’s going on at the time. Medicines taken, time of day, and the situation you’re in might help you figure out what affects your memory
- Tell your doctor – they may be able to pinpoint what’s causing your brain fog and how to help – this is where your diary will come in useful
If you think you’re suffering from Chemo Brain and would like support from other people who know exactly what you’re going through, join the Facebook Chemotherapy Support Group to ask questions and share your experience.