Assisting with Chemo Brain…or Avoiding It Altogether?

What is Chemo Brain?

Many patients who have gone through chemotherapy complain of “chemo brain” after their treatment. This impairment includes difficulties in remembering things, completing tasks or learning new things. Some doctors will only refer to the symptoms as chemo brain if they don’t improve over time, or don’t go away. The duration of the symptoms has an important impact on the degree to which it impacts a patient’s life.

The American Cancer Society suggests that for most people, the onset of chemo brain develops quickly and doesn’t last for very long. That doesn’t discount the reality for those patients who are affected by chemo brain and experience long-term changes. Often, the changes are subtle enough to be noticeable only to a patient, but those who experience cognitive difficulties are very aware of the problems this impairment creates in their daily life. Unfortunately, many patients refuse to tell their health care providers about the problems until they impact everyday life.

Symptoms of Chemo Brain

Even though many may think that it’s all in their heads, there are very real effects of chemo brain. Symptoms include:

  • Short-term memory lapse
  • Difficulty with concentrating, maintaining focus, short attention span, may “space out”
  • Difficulty remembering words and names and with completing sentences
  • Inability to multitask without losing track of a task
  • Thinking and processing slower, finishing things slower

Treatments to Minimize the Symptoms of Chemo Brain

At a 2005 meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists, researchers reported that central nervous system stimulant use significantly lessened cognitive dysfunction in patients previously treated with chemotherapy. The researchers conducted a clinical trial testing medications already approved by the FDA for the treatment of ADD on patients suffering from chemo brain. All but 20 patients completed the eight-week study, and those that completed the study and received the ADD approved drug experienced weekly improvement, both in alertness and their cognitive functioning.

Other tactics can be as simple as writing things down, exercising the brain and body, resting, eating healthily, follow routines, keep a diary, and being compassionate when things are forgotten. We can be hard on ourselves, and we often notice our problems more than others do.

Proton Therapy an Alternative to Chemotherapy

Since its approval by the FDA in 2001, public interest in this form of radiation therapy has increased. This is a boon for cancer patients who have rare and/or difficult to treat tumors like chordomas, meningiomas, and chondrosarcomas. The advantage to proton therapy is that an aperture is created to match the shape and size of each individual patient’s tumor, thus sparing healthy surrounding tissue (unlike traditional radiation therapy, which destroys healthy and unhealthy cells alike).

There is a clear need to do more research into the symptoms, effects and long-term consequences of chemo brain. The emerging evidence of lingering cognitive and mental side effects that are often long-term points to the need for patients and their doctors to explore all of the possible treatment options available, including treatments that may be used in lieu of chemotherapy. After all, the goal of all cancer treatment is to offer the patient the best possible, long-term outcome.