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Chemo Brain Can Affect Us Even If We Aren’t Fighting Cancer

Patricia Faust Feb 2020

Brain Health Kuel Category Expert: Patricia Faust, MGS

There have been a number of women I know who have breast cancer. The treatment for breast cancer can be quite aggressive including chemotherapy and/or radiation. Because I am always thinking in the context of brain health, I was particularly sensitive to their complaints of brain fog. Even though there hasn’t been definitive research around chemo brain, doctors and researchers agree that it is a very real condition. The American Cancer Society recognizes chemo brain as a side effect of chemotherapy.

Chief complaints were memory and concentration problems. The following list tries to capture the primary side effects of chemo brain:

  • Memory lapses
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble remembering detail like names and addresses
  • Taking longer to finish things
  • Trouble remembering common words
  • Fatigue
  • Disorganized
  • Confusion

This is a troubling list of side effects. These changes can be subtle and not noticed by others. But chemo brain is a very scary experience that can disrupt your life.

What Causes Chemo Brain?

As it turns out, chemo brain is very common. Dr. Arash Asher, director of Cancer Rehabilitation and Survivorship at Cedars-Sinai, said that

“As many as 75% of cancer patients have experienced it during their treatment.”

About a third of patients may continue to struggle after treatment.

For most patients, the effects resolve within 6-9 months after they finish treatment. For others, the symptoms could last for years.

Dr. Asher states that it is unclear what causes chemo brain. There doesn’t seem to be any one treatment or drug that impacts the likelihood of getting it. He also disagrees with the term ‘chemo brain’. He has had many patients struggling with these symptoms who never received chemotherapy.

“I would be one of those people who struggled with chemo brain despite the fact that I never had cancer or chemotherapy.”

In 2012, I had vestibular nerve section surgery. I had Meniere’s disease with the subsequent side effects of a balance disorder. It became necessary to clip the vestibular nerve on my right side in order for me to start feeling better. This was brain surgery! I had the nerve clipped at the brainstem. It was a long surgery with lots of anesthetic. After this surgery I had to learn balance function again. It was a big task. I definitely noticed that my brain just wasn’t working as well as it did before the surgery. As part of my rehab, I had to learn how to walk straight again and have better use of my eye movement. It was grueling. I just felt that my brain was moving way too slowly. I subscribed to a brain fitness program to help me start picking up some speed in my thinking process. It helped my peripheral vision, focus and concentration. I noticed a big difference in my brain function after that.

How is Chemo Brain Treated?

There are steps you can take to deal with chemo brain. Tell your doctor of the things you are experiencing. It is important to rule out any complications or additional medical problems. To alleviate some of the anxiety associated with memory problems, incorporate these steps to maximize brain health:

    • Get physical exercise in whatever capacity you are able. The brain benefits from the oxygen, carbohydrates and blood sent to it from each heartbeat.
    • Exercise your brain. Anything from reading, board games, puzzles to electronic brain games helps stimulate the new brain cells you just grew from your exercise.
    • Get organized. Make lists to help you remember anything. Have a spot for keys, etc. so you are not running around looking for misplaced items.
    • Get plenty of sleep and rest. Your brain is very busy embedding memories when you are in a deep sleep.
    • Eat good food – lots of vegetables and fruit and fish. Say no to a lot of red meat.
    • Have a set routine every day. It will allow your brain to have the energy to work on more complex activities.
    • Keep a journal of your symptoms. Trends might become apparent and you will find what problems emerge and you can work on solutions to events that cause memory problems.

Don’t be a lone ranger throughout this period. The brain likes people and allowing others to help you navigate this situation will be good for your brain. Isolation breeds depression and you certainly don’t want to go down that rabbit hole. You need all of your strength and brain energy to live a satisfying life.

One last thing to remember: “Chemo Brain is not dementia. And, there is no evidence that it leads to dementia.” Dr. Arash Asher

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About the Author:

Patricia Faust is a gerontologist specializing in the issues of brain aging, brain health, brain function and dementia. She has a Masters in Gerontological Studies degree from Miami University in Oxford Ohio. Patricia is certified as a brain health coach and received a certification in Neuroscience and Wellness through Dr. Sarah McKay and the Neuroscience Academy. My Boomer Brain, founded in 2015, is the vehicle that Patricia utilizes to teach, coach and consult about brain aging, brain health and brain function. Her newsletter, My Boomer Brain, has international readers from South Africa, Australia, throughout Europe and Canada. She has also been a frequent guest on Medicare Moment on WMKV and Cincy Lifestyles on WCPO.

American Cancer Society, Chemo brain. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentandsideeffects/chemotherapyeffects/chemo-brain
Cedars – Sinai Staff. (March 26, 2019). What is chemo brain? Retrieved from https://www.cedars-sinai.org/blog/chemo-brain.html
Mayo Clinic, Chemo brain. Retrieved from http://mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chemo-brain/basics/definition/con-20033864?p=1
Raeke,M. (March 1, 2017). Cancer treatment side effect: Chemobrain. Retrieved from https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/cancerwise/cancer-treatment-side-effect-chemobrain.h00-159143667.html