I truly hope you’ve never had to have chemotherapy. But if you do, you may experience a side effect commonly referred to as “chemo brain”.
Doctors refer to it as mild cognitive impairment and unbelievably, the medical establishment still hasn’t decided for sure whether chemotherapy is actually the cause!
If you or anyone you care about are undergoing chemotherapy and having problems with the way your brain is working, you should know the latest findings. Two studies reported in the news this week have completely divergent points of view. Read on and decide for yourself which you think makes more sense.
Symptoms of Chemo Brain
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), here are some of the ways that chemotherapy has been reported to affect the brain:
- Memory lapses
- Poor concentration
- Forgetting names, dates, and words
- Difficulty multitasking
- Slower thinking
- Taking longer to do tasks
Is Stress, not Chemo, the Culprit?
In one of the studies in the news this week, researchers from the University of Michigan School of Nursing looked at the cause of chemo brain symptoms.
This study suggests that the cognitive problems associated with chemo brain start to occur before the treatment starts and could be caused by stress. While researchers admit that chemotherapy could affect the brain in some way, they theorize that “anticipation of toxic side effects may increase the burden of distress”. Really? They think having cancer and facing chemo might be stressful?
Frankly, this makes me mad. This attitude can only make patients feel worse — that their symptoms are more psychological than physical and that the problem is “all in their head”.
A study like this seems unnecessary when the ACS already admits that this malady is complex and likely has numerous causes including:
- The disease itself
- Medications used in treatment (steroids, anti-nausea, hormone treatments, pain medicines)
- Low blood counts
- Sleep problems
- Hormone changes, including menopause brought on by chemotherapy
- Other illnesses, such as diabetes or high blood pressure
- Nutritional deficiencies
Evidence that Chemo Changes the Brain
A second study in the news this week was carried out by the West Virginia University School of Medicine. Using positron emission tomography combined with computed tomography (PET/CT), researchers were able to look at patients’ brain activity before and after chemo treatments.
They found there are certain areas of the brain that use less energy after chemotherapy, specifically areas of the brain involved with planning and decision-making. The head of this study revealed that when they looked at the results, they were surprised at how “obvious” the changes were, and asserts:
“Chemo brain phenomenon is more than a feeling. It is not depression. It is a change in brain function observable on PET/CT brain imaging.”
So What Does This Mean?
The ACS’s opinion that chemo brain is probably caused by numerous factors makes sense to me, particularly when it’s well known that stress, sleep problems, hormone fluctuations, high blood pressure, and medications are all known to have negative effects on the brain. Put them all together, add chemotherapy to the mix, and you would expect cognition to be affected.
But to put the blame on the patient’s anticipation of chemotherapy I feel is just plain wrong. Especially when the changes to the brain from chemo can now be visually demonstrated by brain scans.
What You Can Do
While there is currently no medical way to prevent or treat the brain fog associated with chemotherapy, the American Cancer Society makes recommendations similar to those we recommend throughout our site for anyone who wants a better functioning brain:
- Use a detailed daily planner and “to do” lists.
- Exercise your brain. Take a class, do word puzzles, or learn a new language.
- Get enough rest and sleep.
- Exercise your body.
- Eat your veggies.
- Pick a certain place for commonly lost objects and put them there each time.
- Don’t try to multitask. Focus on one thing at a time. Staying mindful on one thing at a time has been shown to slow down cellular aging.
- Ask for help when you need it. Friends and loved ones can help with daily tasks to cut down on distractions and help you save mental energy.
- Accepting the problem will help you deal with it. Being able to laugh about things you can’t remember can help you cope.
If you find your thinking isn’t right during your cancer treatment, be sure to talk to your doctor. But don’t let him convince you that your chemo brain is “all in your head”.
Cancer and Foggy Thinking: Is Chemotherapy Really the Cause? at Healthland.time.com
Chemo Brain at Cancer.org
Scientists Find Evidence for “Chemo Brain” in Scans at MedicalNewsToday.com
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