Chemobrain is real. Here’s what to expect after cancer treatment.

Scientifically, it's referred to as 'cancer-related cognitive impairment' or 'chemotherapy-related cognitive dysfunction'.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A few years ago, one of my students came to me and spoke about her mother who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

She said her mother was losing her memory and her bearings, and was very worried because nobody knew what to do about her symptoms. The oncologist sent her to the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist sent her back, saying that her symptoms were a result of the cancer treatment.

This experience prompted my student and me to begin studying the problem of 'chemobrain' or 'chemofog' – the terms used by people who have experienced memory loss or cognitive impairment following cancer treatment. Scientifically, it's referred to as 'cancer-related cognitive impairment' or 'chemotherapy-related cognitive dysfunction'.

Consider another example, that of 'Jane', a 52-year-old teacher who had her right breast removed three months after being diagnosed with breast cancer, before starting on chemotherapy. After two cycles of chemo, she noticed that she was finding it difficult to remember simple words. For instance, she would say: 'Oh can you pass me the writing thing, the writing stick with the ink in it.' She also kept forgetting people's names, which was startling because she always had a good memory for names. She had trouble following traffic rules. For example, she would merge into traffic without checking, and would cross roads without looking left to right. Her daughter would have to hold her to prevent her from walking in front of cars.

There are many such stories, and today we have enough research evidence to suggest that chemobrain is a real phenomenon, although it remains poorly understood. In fact, it's not clear in many cases whether the cause is the treatment itself, the stress of the treatment and illness, or even a direct effect of the cancer. I believe that the link with stress is strong, and most recommendations for symptom-alleviation are to reduce stress.

There are multiple symptoms associated with chemobrain, including some or many of the following:

  • difficulty remembering words and spellings, as well as recalling names and faces;
  • forgetting previously known routines, inability to multitask, and difficulty navigating traffic;
  • inability to stay focused on a task, getting easily distracted, and going blank or becoming confused;
  • easily losing things;
  • difficulty learning new skills; and
  • frequently repeating oneself.

These symptoms can affect people's self-confidence, social relationships and even their ability to perform jobs that require substantial intellectual input. Women with chemobrain have described finding it difficult to get back to work. They've told researchers about their reduced confidence in work and social activities; how they tend to get frustrated easily and can feel more intolerant of others. Survivors of childhood cancers find it hard to remember what to actually do in a task and maintain attention on a task. As a result, they are either unable to complete tasks or take much longer to complete them.

Curiously, people who report loss of memory and attention after chemotherapy usually perform well on neuropsychological testing, which makes chemobrain difficult to measure using currently available neuropsychological tools. Nonetheless, their subjective symptoms cause them significant distress, and this has an adverse effect on their quality of life.

It's worth noting that not all patients who receive cancer treatment experience this condition. Surveys suggest that 70-75 per cent of those who receive treatment for breast cancer typically experience chemobrain. It's also common following treatment for prostate cancer, and can occur with other conditions such as childhood cancers, as well as in older people with cancer. Chemicals produced by certain cancers are known to affect memory, which might partly explain why chemobrain varies in prevalence with different forms of the illness.

Another established pattern is that, while chemobrain is frequently reported during and after chemotherapy or radiation therapy, it is rare following surgery alone. The reasons for this are unclear. One possibility is the higher stress levels caused by chemotherapy and radiation therapy (as opposed to surgery alone) might add to any pretreatment stress-related mental difficulties. The absence of chemobrain in about half of those who receive treatment for cancer might be because their cognition was not already affected by stress. This would also explain why women who have pre-existing depression and anxiety are more likely to experience chemobrain symptoms.

These findings suggest that, if you are awaiting chemotherapy or radiotherapy, the chances of developing symptoms of chemobrain are increased if you are or have been under stress or have a pre-existing mental illness such as depression or anxiety. The lower your pre-existing stress levels, the less your chances of experiencing chemobrain-related symptoms, and the higher the chances of their early disappearance.

If you believe you might have chemobrain, avoiding stressful situations and engaging in relaxation exercises and short periods of strenuous exercise could improve your memory. Other activities such as meditation, art and yoga have also been found to be helpful in controlling symptoms. Once you identify what activities exacerbate your symptoms, you can avoid them as much as possible, and choose suitable exercises from the menu of options. Memory exercises or brain games might also help counteract the symptoms. Thankfully, chemobrain symptoms are usually temporary. They develop soon after treatment commences and typically last 6-12 months, after which they tend to subside. However, in more serious cases, they can last up to 20 years.

Unfortunately, until recently, oncologists, though vaguely aware of the occurrence of chemobrain, have not paid much attention to it. This is because they believe it is uncommon, and are uncertain about their role in managing it – and how to manage it. As a result, many clinicians don't give it the importance that it deserves. Therefore, my advice if you are commencing cancer treatment is to discuss the possibility of chemobrain with your treating team, including the different ways to manage with it, in case it develops.

My research also suggests it is useful for family members to be made aware of the symptoms of chemobrain because, in many cases, it is they who first begin to notice such symptoms. Being aware of them, they will be able to show understanding and provide you with support. Emotional and social support play an important role in helping people cope with symptoms of chemobrain.

If you're already experiencing chemobrain, inform your doctor about it and ask for specialist nursing help. In my research, women in Australia treated for breast cancer told us that breast care nurses were very helpful in managing chemobrain symptoms, as they are specially trained to provide emotional and social support to patients who experience it. Also inform your family and friends so they can support you during this time. To manage your chemobrain symptoms, the focus should be on reducing your stress levels. The more efficiently you can achieve this, the quicker your symptoms will subside.

At a societal level, it's vital that we raise awareness of chemobrain. With the availability of increasingly better treatment modalities for cancer, more and more people are living longer following cancer treatment. Currently, about 90 per cent of women with breast cancer live for 10 years or more in Australia, with the survival rate for the same period at around 84 per cent in the US, 78 per cent in the UK and lower elsewhere. Unfortunately, chemobrain can significantly affect their quality of life during this time with its social, psychological and economic impacts. However, it continues to be poorly understood and inadequately managed. It's time for researchers and medical practitioners to take chemobrain more seriously, with the goal of improving people's post-cancer quality of life.

If you wish to find out more about chemobrain, the US charities Cancer Care and the Cancer Support Community provide more information, as does Cancer Research UK.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

The history of using the Insurrection Act against Americans

Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.

The army during riots in Washington, DC, after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., April 1968.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
  • The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
  • The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
Keep reading Show less

Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

Scroll down to load more…