What is Chemo Brain?

The Journal of Clinical Oncology published an online article, Feb. 27, looking at a study about “chemo brain”, the name given to the mental fog and related memory problems that can occur during and after chemotherapy.

The study looked at women, between ages 50 to 80, who had been treated with chemotherapy for breast cancer from 1976 to 1995. This may be the first study to suggest that subtle cognitive deficits may be among the long-term effects of chemotherapy.

I’ve tackled some of the most important takeaways from this engaging research/

Q:  What does the term “chemo brain” mean?

This refers to absent-mindedness or forgetfulness after receiving chemotherapy.

Q:  What were the significant results of this study, which looked at the long-term effect of chemotherapy on breast cancer survivors’ memories?

Women who received chemotherapy demonstrated a degree of memory problems and slower cognition compared to women who didn’t receive chemotherapy. This memory issue can last for years and possibly for a lifetime after chemotherapy.

Q:  What new information did the study from Netherlands Cancer Institute/Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Hospital in Amsterdam give physicians?

This study helps us understand that long-term effects of chemotherapy may include cognitive issues such as reaction time and memory issues, along with possible physical dysfunction such as coordination.

Q:  Will the results of this study change how physicians prescribe chemotherapy?

The results of the study will become part of the discussion with patients about the side effects of treatment. In the end, we are still trying to fight the cancer and to prevent its recurrence. Women, who already have memory issues, may have more concerns to discuss with their physicians.

Q:  What chemotherapy pharmaceuticals were used by the women followed in this study? Are these drugs currently being used or have newer ones taken their place?

Overall, I’d say that we are using better drugs now, better suited for the cancer, and we are doing a better job in treating breast cancer as compared to the time of the study. The chemo medications used during the time of this study were cyclophosphamide, 5FU, and methotrexate.

Now physicians use taxanes, anthracyclins, gemcytobine/navelbines, platinums, and targeted agents like herceptin. The future direction of treatment is more directed towards targeted agents with less toxicities.

Q:  Why does chemotherapy affect cognitive abilities?

No one really knows at this point.

Q:  Should a woman alert her physician if she experiences cognitive deficits after having chemotherapy?

Yes, definitely. Her physicians could determine if other medical issues could be causing memory problems such as infection, depression or progression of the disease.

This blog post was contributed by Sashidhar Reddy, M.D., an oncologist on the medical staff at Baylor Medical Center at Garland.

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What is Chemo Brain?