Treatment hopes to help cancer patients with "Chemo Brain"

More than 13 million Americans live with some form of cancer.

Harsh treatments like chemo and radiation save lives, but they also change lives as cancer survivors learn to cope with “chemo brain”.

“Chemo brain” affects anywhere from 14 to 85 percent of cancer patients, but it's not just the chemo that causes problems. Radiation, hormone therapy, and surgery are also to blame.

“I just felt like my mind was muddled,” said Deborah Binder, a cancer survivor living with “chemo brain.”

"Chemo Brain generally refers to people who have some kind of cognitive difficulty following cancer treatment,” said Monique Cherrier, PhD., Research Associate Professor at the University Of Washington School Of Medicine.

Other factors like lack of sleep, stress, and depression also play a role in cognitive functioning.

A study in 2012 looked at women after breast cancer surgery before any treatment was given.

About one in four showed problems with word skills and about one in seven had memory issues.

The women who reported worse brain problems also reported higher stress levels.

Now, researchers are studying whether cognitive rehabilitation can help.

Patients attend group sessions for seven weeks and learn proven memory strategies.

"We're actually seeing some nice activation pattern changes in the brain," said Dr. Cherrier.

Deborah says learning to group together information, like numbers, helped her.

“I feel like it's getting better, but I don't feel like I'm where I was before I was diagnosed,” said Deborah.

REPORT #2080

BACKGROUND: Cancer survivors often complain about a mental cloudiness they notice before, during, and after cancer treatment. Its exact cause isn't always known, but this mental fog is commonly referred to as chemo brain. Chemo brain can also be called chemo fog, chemotherapy-related cognitive impairment or cognitive dysfunction. Patients have been aware of chemo brain for a while now, but researchers are only recently conducting studies to help explain it. Experts have known for years that radiation treatment to the brain can cause thinking and memory problems. Recently, they have found that chemo is linked to some of the same kinds of issues. Research shows that some cancer drugs can cause certain changes in the brain. However, it also shows that chemo and radiation aren't the only things that can cause thinking and memory problems in people with cancer. (Source: and
WHAT IS CHEMO BRAIN?: Here are just a few examples of what patients call chemo brain:
* Forgetting things that they usually have no trouble recalling (memory lapses)
* Trouble concentrating
* Trouble remembering common words
* Trouble remembering details like names and dates
* Taking longer to finish things (disorganized, slower thinking and processing)
* Trouble multi-tasking, like answering the phone while cooking, without losing track of one task (Source:

TREATMENT: Not many treatments exist for chemo brain, although some patients may find relief from stimulants like Ritalin, commonly used to treat ADHD. It can help improve mental focus, concentration, and stamina in cancer patients. Another thing to help manage the problems that might come with chemo brain is to use a detailed daily planner. Keeping everything in one place makes it easier to find the reminders you need. Also, exercise your brain by taking a class or doing word puzzles. Eating veggies, exercising, and getting enough sleep also keep you alert. Tracking your memory problems can also be beneficial. Keep a diary of medicines taken, time of day, and the situation you are in. It might help you figure out what affects your memory. Keeping track of when the problems are most noticeable can also help you prepare. You'll know to avoid planning important conversations or appointments during those times. This will also be useful when you talk with your doctor about these problems. (Source: and
? For More Information, Contact:

Diana David
Research Assistant
UW Memory Health Research Program
(206) 667-7930

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