Medical Moment: Treating brain fog after breast cancer

Published: Oct. 14, 2021 at 5:40 PM EDT
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People who have completed cancer treatment and chemotherapy often complain about brain fog, having a hard time with words or completing household tasks like making a grocery list. It’s a type of cognitive impairment often called “chemo brain.”

Cancer patients traditionally ring the bell marking the end of chemotherapy, but an estimated 20% of women who survive breast cancer complain of memory problems, weeks, months or years afterwards.

Robert Ferguson is a Pittsburgh clinical psychologist and cancer researcher. Ferguson and colleagues at Indiana University have developed and are evaluating a therapy called memory and attention adaptation training or MAAT. Psychologists work with patients to identify specific situations at home and work where memory issues are causing problems.

“For example,” says Ferguson, “somebody who works in banking and finance may have difficulty transposing numbers from one spreadsheet to another spreadsheet on their computer.

“It may be keeping an organized day planner. It also may be using internal skills such as verbal rehearsal or self-instruction, which is talking through tasks that involve steps.”

The researchers will also look at functional MRI scans of survivors to determine if there are changes in brain activation as a result of the MAAT treatment.

Pitt and Indiana University are enrolling 200 breast cancer survivors in the study. Half will receive MAAT, and half will receive supportive therapy where they’ll work with a psychologist to build resilience in coping with memory problems. In a previous study, the researchers demonstrated improved memory following treatment among patients with traumatic brain injury.

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