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Are you experiencing chemo brain?

Published: 11 Oct 2018

Many members of the Facebook Chemotherapy Support group have shared comments that their brains aren’t quite working at top speed.  Do any of these apply to you?

Described as brain fog or cloudiness, is it real or is it imagined? We wanted to find out what the experts thought.

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!

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:

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:

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.