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Could You have Chemo Brain?


Since you've had chemotherapy, have you noticed that you can't remember things? Is it harder to perform under pressure, the way you used to? Is it more difficult to concentrate?

There's a chance you may have "chemo brain," a side effect of chemotherapy that's not as well known as nausea, fatigue, depression, anemia and hair loss. Often, you don't notice it so much until you've begun to get back into your normal routine. It's then that you might begin to realize that certain tasks aren't as easy as they were before your treatment.

As a rule, people who return to stressful jobs, or jobs that require a lot of multi-tasking, are the ones who will feel the most affected by chemo brain.

For doctors, figuring out the cause of chemo brain can be frustrating. In many cases, symptoms of chemo brain are caused by the side effects of chemotherapy itself. For example, anemia, depression and fatigue can cause you to be forgetful and unable to concentrate. But as doctors have focused more on chemo brain, they've learned that in about 20 to 25 percent of patients, chemo brain is not caused by chemotherapy's side effects.

Research is currently being conducted to measure patient's mental function before chemotherapy and afterwards. This is likely to help pinpoint exactly who has chemo brain. Additionally, researchers are investigating whether genetics or hormonal factors play a role. And they're using MRI imaging technology to determine which parts of the brain are affected by chemotherapy, and what kind of chemotherapy is most likely to cause symptoms. All of this research could eventually lead to better identification and treatment of this condition.

What you can do if you do have chemo brain

Research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology discussed breast cancer survivors who participated in a workshop and described coping mechanisms that helped them with chemo brain. Some of the recommendations they had included:

  • Cutting back on their work schedules if at all possible.
  • Trying to focus on one task at a time.
  • Making lists to help them remember what they needed to do.
  • Getting more sleep.
  • Avoiding situations where quick thinking was necessary.

    Chemo brain can, unfortunately, last for up to 10 years in some patients. But it's important to remember that while the symptoms may seem obvious to the people who have them, cognitive testing shows that the changes are actually fairly subtle and not likely to have a great impact on quality of life and cognitive function.

    American Cancer Society: Journal of Clinical Oncology, Vol. 22, No. 11: 2233-2239; Journal of Clinical Oncology, 15 January 2002
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