Are you starting to wonder why you are reaching the end of a long
workday and have gotten nothing done? Or, is it simply impossible to
remember what you have accomplished?
For me, it started as a subtle and
nondescript sense of confusion, until I heard other survivors
talking about it and I asked my doctor. No, it is not our
imagination, a sign of aging before our time or that we are insane.
"Chemo brain" manifests
itself differently for everybody but apparently there are some
common traits. For me, it is an inability to concentrate, a memory
like a sieve and "brain drain". That feeling that your
head needs a nap even though your body has energy.
All my life I have thrived, and
others have benefited, by my ability to multi-task. That, coupled
with my organizational abilities and attention to detail, has been
the route of my employability in both the entertainment industry and
interior design. So for me, the good news is that I am alive, but
the bad news is that, at least for now it is not business as usual.
I have read that 1 out of 4
chemotherapy patients experience symptoms of Chemo Brain. I suggest
that is more than that and it is being misdiagnosed because the
symptoms are so vague. Memory loss, thinking and cognitive problems
could be a result of depression, anxiety or exhaustion which would
be an understandable side effect of the disease itself.
Understandably, the people who are most likely to seek help for
chemo brain related symptoms are highly functioning individuals who
are most aware that they are not functioning up to snuff. There is
an expectation that when their chemotherapy regimen ends they will
be back to normal but often they are not.
For decades, it has been thought
that chemotherapy drugs were molecularly too large to transcend the
natural barrier between the blood vessels in the brain and the brain
tissue itself. This barrier is one of the main reasons why many
chemotherapy drugs are not effective on cancers that have spread to
Dr. Lawrence Shulman, chief medical
officer at Boston's Dana Farber Cancer Institute says, "Chemo
brain could be caused by the drugs indirectly, in that they can
cause the body to pump out natural chemicals called cytokines that
do enter the brain and may trigger significant decreases in
cognitive function...And, some cognitive problems experienced by
cancer patients might be caused by drugs given along with
chemotherapy, such as anti nausea medications, steroids, sedatives
According to a study at Dartmouth
Medical School (March, 2000), which included women who had undergone
chemo for breast cancer and women with similar educational
background and age who were treated for lymphoma with surgery and
radiation alone, the breast cancer survivors treated with
chemotherapy scored significantly lower on standardized tests for
mental and physiological function. All the women were cancer free
after 5 years and some had no signs of chemo brain. Most of those
that did exhibit symptoms found they improved over time.
The problem with fully
understanding chemo brain is that, thus far, no studies have been
completed with long-term results, including women before, during and
Hopefully, research will soon be
done that will lead to solutions for the symptoms of chemo brain. In
the meantime, it is important to do what you can to combat them.
First, consult you doctor with anything that concerns you. You could
possibly be medicated for anemia or depression, both of which can
cause the symptoms of chemo brain to be more severe. Anemia affects
the amount of oxygen that goes to the brain. Depression affects your
mood and ability to function. Both result in fatigue and affect your
ability to think which exacerbates the symptoms.
Whatever the actual cause or
combination of causes, it's happening to me! And, although I do not
wish this on anyone, I am glad to know that I am not alone, it is
not my imagination and that it may go away as mysteriously as it
about a Chemo Brain Day of Jana's
* From "Minds fixed on
'chemo brain,' by Judy Foreman, Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2003.
** Fact checked by Dr. Greg
Olsen of Valley Hematology and Oncology, Sherman Oaks, CA.