Medically Reviewed by Michael D. Pavy, MD
Melanie sat at her kitchen table, sipping her coffee, enjoying the birds in the garden. She smiled, recalling the positive prognosis she received after finishing chemotherapy for her breast cancer. “I’m going to phone Mom and tell her,” Melanie thought. Then, she couldn’t remember a phone number she had called thousands of time. “Oh well,” she thought, “I’ll make some lunch.” Yet, struggle as she might, Melanie couldn’t remember the ingredients for her favorite recipe.
Melanie is suffering from “chemobrain,” a common side effect of chemotherapy for cancer patients, even if it’s not for brain cancer for which they’re being treated.
“We don’t know what causes this mental fog, memory loss and lack of concentration that patients suffer,” says McLeod Oncologist Dr. Michael Pavy. “We do know that our patients are suffering chemobrain. And we’re learning better how to help them deal with it.”
Although the name “chemobrain” leads us to think the condition is triggered by solely chemotherapy, some research indicates the cause may be more complex. Other elements that may play a role include: 1) biochemical effects of the cancer itself, 2) the impact of a patient knowing they have cancer, 3) side effects of radiation therapy or 4) the effects of a patient’s chronic disease, such as congestive heart failure, diabetes, COPD or depression.
No matter what the cause, up to 75% of chemotherapy cancer patients will experience these mental issues. Some problems, such as remembering words that “are on the tip of your tongue” clear up in a year or two. Motor skills may take 5 years. Some patients still describe problems 20 years after treatment.
Patients are frustrated that they can’t organize things as easily as before treatment (such as, getting dressed) or that they can’t multi-task (such as, answering the phone while cooking).
DEALING WITH CHEMOBRAIN
Since the actual cause or causes of this chemotherapy side effect still are not known, there is no way to medically “cure” chemobrain. However, here are some tips to help sufferers gain more control:
ACTION YOU CAN TAKE
The impact of chemobrain not only affects the patient, but also family, friends and coworkers. Patients should try to talk about their frustrations. And, if appropriate, give them a copy of this article.
Have a question? Ask a Cancer Specialist.
Sources include: McLeod Health, National Institutes of Health, American Cancer Society, Radiological Society o North America, American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Psychological Association, Association for Psychological Science, Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, American Cancer Society