Nearly 15 million Americans who have been diagnosed with cancer are living in the United States today. People also are living longer after being told they have cancer. This is partly due to improved cancer treatment. There are many types of cancer treatment including surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and immunotherapy. The types of treatment given depend on the type of cancer and how advanced it is.
Cancer treatments are designed to target cancer cells. Sometimes treatment also affects healthy tissues or organs. The problems that occur when this happens are called side effects. According to the National Cancer Institute, side effects vary from person to person, even among those receiving the same treatment. Some people have very few side effects while others have many. The type of treatment(s) you receive, as well as the amount or frequency of the treatment, your age and other health conditions you have may also factor into your side effects.
One reported side effect has been dubbed “chemo brain.” Health-care professionals call chemo brain “cancer treatment-related cognitive impairment,” “cancer therapy-associated cognitive change” or post-chemotherapy cognitive impairment.” Chemo brain is often mentioned with breast cancer treatment but has been reported in patients undergoing treatment for other cancers as well.
In the late 1990s, physicians started to notice a growing number of patients describing mental symptoms and side effects to their cancer treatment. Chemo brain is a number of symptoms that can include: difficulty concentrating, short-term memory problems, mental “fogginess,” misplacing things and difficulty finding the right word. Though the name refers to chemotherapy, other treatments such as hormonal therapy and immunotherapy can also cause chemo brain symptoms.
The cause of chemo brain has been hard to zero in on and this has caused some health care professionals to doubt its existence. Recent studies have looked at cancer treatment-related thinking problems using brain imaging and testing. The results now show that this is a real physical problem. Dr. Patricia Ganz, in an article on MedicineNet.com, stated: “patients are having difficulties and we need to acknowledge it is one of the difficulties of treatment.”
Brain function difficulties can be caused or worsened by any or all of the following; the cancer itself, other drugs used as part of treatment or surgery, low blood counts, sleep problems, fatigue, infection, hormone changes, other conditions such as high blood pressure, age, depression, stress or anxiety. Most instances of chemo brain cause short-term problems and improve when the underlying issue is treated or goes away. How long it lasts, when it starts and how severe the symptoms can also vary a great deal.
Share your concerns with family and friends so they can provide help and support. Also share your symptoms and worries with your health care team. Keep a diary to log items you have problems with, when are they better or worse, when they started and how they affect your daily life. When you schedule an appointment make a list of questions for your provider, bring a list of medicines, and also bring a friend or family member to help with what is said during the visit. And ask if you might benefit from an appointment with a specialist such as a neurologist.
There are some suggested chemo brain management tools that can help such as: use a detailed planner/calendar or smart phone for notes and schedules; practice healthy choices — getting enough sleep, exercising and eating healthy; set routines and follow them; focus on one thing at a time — no multitasking; ask for help and keep a diary.
Studies are underway to learn more about chemo brain and its possible causes and treatments. Researchers are also looking at ways to prevent chemo brain or to protect the brain during cancer treatment. Before you start treatment, ask your health care team what side effects you are likely to have. Learn about steps you can take, as well as supportive care that you will receive, to lessen side effects during and after treatment. Speak up about any side effects you have and changes you notice, so your health care team can treat or help you manage them. The good news is that chemo brain tends to get better on its own once treatment is finished.
The Northeast Regional Cancer Institute encourages you to talk with your healthcare provider about your specific medical conditions and treatments. The information contained in this article is meant to be helpful and educational but is not a substitute for medical advice. The above information is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention www.cdc.gov; The National Cancer Institute, MD Anderson Cancer Center and the American Cancer Society. The Northeast Regional Cancer Institute can provide additional information on the above topic. Feel free to visit the Cancer Institute website at cancernepa.org, or contact the organization by calling (800) 424-6724.