Coping with 'chemo brain'

2 women share their fight to retain their memories


SEATTLE, Wash. – More than 13 million Americans are living with some form of cancer. Harsh treatments like chemo and radiation save lives, but they will also change lives. Now, many cancer survivors are learning how to cope with chemo brain.

"I just felt like my mind was muddled," said Deborah Binder, a cancer survivor.

"I'd ask my husband for the milk when I was meaning to ask for a banana," said Janet Freeman-Daily, another woman who fought and beat cancer.

These cancer survivors are now living with "chemo brain."

"It generally refers to people who have some kind of cognitive difficulty following cancer treatment," explained Monique Cherrier, PhD, Research Associate Professor, Neuropsychologist, University of Washington School of Medicine.

"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.
Now, researchers are studying whether cognitive rehabilitation can help. Patients attended group sessions for seven weeks and learned proven memory strategies.

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

After cognitive rehab, researchers can see the pattern of brain activation, suggesting they processed information more efficiently.

One of Freeman-Daily's favorite memory exercises is the "memory palace." You picture a room in your house and visually put something you want to remember by an object in that room.

"When I want to recall it, I just go back up and walk through the house and that image is there in the entry, and it reminds me of what it is that I'm trying to remember," she explained.

Binder says learning to group together information—like numbers—helped her.

"I feel like it is getting better, but I don't feel like I'm where I was before I was diagnosed," she said.

Other factors like lack of sleep, stress, and depression may also play a role in cognitive functioning and may also impact patients with cancer related cognitive dysfunction.

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.

Additional Information:

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: www.cancer.org and http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chemo-brain/basics/symptoms/CON-20033864)

WHAT IS CHEMO BRAIN?: Here are just a few examples of what patients call chemo brain:

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: www.cancer.org and http://www.mdanderson.org/patient-and-cancer-information/cancer-information/cancer-topics/dealing-with-cancer-treatment/chemobrain/index.html)