Chemo Brain Fog - A Side Effect of Chemotherapy
Copyright 2011, Kris Heeter Ph.D.
Doctors have known for years that cancer radiation treatments to the brain have the ability to cause cognitive memory and thinking problems.
In recent years, similar problems have been cited by patients during and after chemotherapy - a phenomenon often referred to as chemotherapy brain fog - aka “chemobrain” or “chemofog”.
The term chemobrain was first coined after it was identified in breast cancer survivors. After years of research, survivors of other cancers have described similar symptoms.
It’s estimated that chemotherapy may affect the cognitive brain function in as many as 75% percent of cancer patients.
Cognitive changes can include difficulties with memory, concentration, multi-tasking, and planning abilities. These changes typically occur during the course of chemotherapy treatment and can continue in at least 20 percent of survivors after treatment has been concluded.
Researchers from the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center recently concluded that:
“We can no longer deny the existence of this long-term effect of cancer treatment".
Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy may increase inflammation and it may linger even long after treatment ends.
Brain abnormalities found during chemotherapy
Studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have identified physical brain changes in patients treated with chemotherapy. MRI has revealed that these changes are abnormalities.
The brain is made up of “white matter” and “gray matter” Gray matter is part of the central nervous system and is made up of neurons, dendrites and capillaries. The gray matter includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, and sensory perception.
White matter is composed of axons coated in myelin (a protective insulation) and it controls the signals that neurons share. It coordinates how well the regions of the brain work in concert.
Small microscopic changes affect these connections in white brain matter. A recent study just published (December, 2011) in the Journal of Clinical Oncology identifies these physical abnormalities as changes that affect the fibers that connect neurons to the brain.
These changes can persist beyond the duration of the chemotherapy. For most patients, they diminish over time but, in some cases, these abnormalities can still be found five years after treatment.
Coping with the chemo "fog"
So now what? How does one cope and can anything be done to alleviate these side affects?
The side affects aren't the same for all patients. However, there are some simple steps that the American Cancer Society suggests that patients take during and after treatment to minimize the impact and stress that these changes in brain function have:
- Keep appointments and "to do" lists organized in one place (e.g. daily planner)
- Create and follow daily routines
- Focus on one thing at time (don't try to multi-task)
- Take educational classes and do word puzzles to exercise the brain
- Get plenty of rest and sleep
- Get regular exercise
- Eat your veggies - they are packed with nutrients that lower inflammation
- Ask for help when you need it
- Keep a diary - track your memory problems and share with your caregivers
- Try to relax and don't let these problems get to you
In the meantime, now that this has been recognized and documented as physical changes in the brain, researchers will continue to study and find ways to reduce these abnormalities. Doctors do stress that the benefits of chemo, right now, outweigh the cognitive side effects.
Share your thoughts...
If you found this article useful, let us know!
And if you or a loved one has suffered these side effects, you are encouraged to share, in the comments section below, what steps were taken to alleviate "the fog".
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