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Chemo Brain? It’s Real!

Recent research has provided substantial evidence that the powerful chemicals needed to kill cancer cells can lead to at least part of the cognitive problems experienced by cancer patients.

Woman smelling flowers

My friend, Barbara, underwent six rounds of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer three years ago. Recently, over lunch, she confided that she was having trouble finding the right words when finishing sentences or recalling familiar names. Barbara seemed particularly worried about what was happening to her short-term memory. She explained she couldn’t remember what she did yesterday and sometimes would forget in the middle of a story what she was talking about.

I suggested that she might be experiencing “chemo brain,” the grass-roots term given by cancer survivors to explain the foggy thinking and forgetfulness many experience after chemotherapy. She, on the other hand, wondered whether her symptoms were from causes other than her cancer treatment. “Is chemo brain real,” she asked, “or is it an excuse for something else that’s wrong with me?”

That wasn’t difficult to answer. There’s now solid data showing that chemo brain is real, not imagined. In a way, it’s an exciting vindication for many individuals whose persistent complaints about their mental struggles were dismissed by doctors as figments of patients’ imagination.

There are numerous factors that can affect brain functioning such as aging, depression, anxiety, low blood counts, and sleeplessness. But recent research has provided substantial evidence that the powerful chemicals needed to kill cancer cells can lead to at least part of the cognitive problems experienced by cancer patients.

According to a study published last year in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL found that the average cancer patient suffered impairments in verbal abilities, particularly in the ability to find words, and got lost more easily, than those who never had chemotherapy.

Another study, conducted at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and published in 2011 in The Journal of Clinical Oncology, found that “chemo brain does exist and can continue long-term,” said Karen L. Syrjala, PhD, co-director of the Survivorship Program at Fred Hutchinson and the study’s lead author. The patients in the study had all undergone chemotherapy as part of bone marrow or stem cell transplants to treat blood cancers. However, researchers said the findings are likely to apply to patients who have undergone chemotherapy for other types of cancer as well.

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