Dr. Sunil Gandhi, Cancer & Blood Disease, 12/25/12

-A A +A

Defining chemobrain

By Dr. Sunil Gandhi

Chemobrain is a condition where patients have cognitive impairments after cancer therapy. Some of the common reported symptoms of chemobrain are as follows:

+ Forgetting things that they usually have no trouble recalling (memory lapses).

+ Trouble concentrating.

+ Trouble remembering details like names, dates, and sometimes larger events.

+ Trouble multi-tasking, like answering the phone while cooking, without losing track of one task.

+ Taking longer to finish things.

+ Trouble remembering common words.

In most of the patients, the symptoms are temporary and resolve after the treatment is completed. This condition is relatively new and information is somewhat evolving. The exact cause-and-effect relationship with chemotherapy is not established.

There was a large breast cancer conference in San Antonio, Texas, recently. This is an annual event where the latest research in breast cancer is presented. This year many interesting studies from around the world were presented.

In one study, researchers tried to elucidate the cause of chemobrain. New brain imaging research suggests that “chemo brain” is an inappropriate label for the neurocognitive deficits often reported by cancer patients. That’s because reduced brain function caused by fatigue and worry is often present even before chemotherapy begins.

The research involved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in breast cancer patients performed 24 to 34 days after surgery and before chemotherapy in 29 patients, or radiotherapy in 37 patients. The control group consisted of 32 age-matched healthy subjects.

Women diagnosed with breast cancer, but who were slated just for radiation therapy, did better on memory tests performed during fMRI (functional MRI) scanning while women without cancer did even better. The chemotherapy group reported significantly greater severity of fatigue and performed less well on the verbal memory task at the first test. This test was done after surgery but before chemotherapy was started.

In other words, symptoms of so-called chemobrain existed before chemotherapy was even started. So, those symptoms are not due to chemotherapy but they can be due to cancer, stress, fatigue, etc.

Yes, chemotherapy or other treatment may worsen the symptoms.

Some suggestions to improve these symptoms are as follows:

+ Use a detailed daily planner. Keeping everything in one place makes it easier to find the reminders you may need.

+ Exercise your brain. Take a class, do word puzzles, or learn a new language.

+ Get enough rest and sleep.

+ Exercise your body. Regular physical activity is not only good for your body, but also improves your mood, makes you feel more alert, and decreases tiredness (fatigue).

+ Eat your veggies. Studies have shown that eating more vegetables improves your brainpower.

+ Set up and follow routines.

+ Don’t try to multi-task. Focus on one thing at a time.

+ Ask for help when you need it.

+ Try not to focus on how much these symptoms bother you. Accepting the problem will help you deal with it.

Dr. Sunil Gandhi is a hematologist and oncologist. He is volunteer medical adviser of the Citrus Unit of American Cancer Society. Write to 521 N. Lecanto Highway, Lecanto, FL 34461, email sgandhi@tampabay.rr.com or call 352-746-0707.