The Truth About Chemo Brain: Insights into the Causes and Cognitive Effects of Chemotherapy

It is estimated that 3 out of 4 cancer patients experience cognitive changes during treatment. The condition is also referred to as chemo brain since it is most commonly associated with chemotherapy, but can also be associated with hormone therapy, radiation, and surgery. These treatments may cause long-term, short-term, or delayed mental changes or cognitive problems. This may make it hard to remember certain things, finish tasks, concentrate, or learn new skills.

Common Symptoms of Chemo Brain

  • Memory loss 
  • Difficulty thinking of the right word for a particular object
  • Difficulty following the flow of a conversation
  • Trouble concentrating or focusing on one thing
  • Difficulty doing more than one thing at a time 
  • More difficulty doing things you used to do easily
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Mental fogginess

The Science Behind Chemo Brain

Research over the past decade has shown that depression in cancer patients often manifests with symptoms such as cognitive impairment. This can result from either the tumour itself causing brain damage or from the effects of treatments. While radiation therapy has been known to cause cognitive difficulties for decades, recent findings also implicate chemotherapy in contributing to these challenges.

Are the cognitive changes from chemo brain permanent?

Generally, people experience mental changes for a short period of time. Others may experience mental changes that are long-lasting or delayed. It is possible for the intensity of these symptoms  to vary from one patient to another, as well as when and how long they last. Often, the changes you notice are subtle and may even be unnoticed by others.

How long does chemo brain last?

There is no universal cure for cognitive changes, but some symptoms may fade after treatment is over. In some cases, it may take up to a year for patients to feel normal again after treatment. In spite of the fact that chemo brain has no known cause, certain factors may increase its likelihood of occurring or make it more severe. 

Is there anything that can increase cognitive changes?

  • The diagnosis of cancer and all the stress and emotion that this brings
  • The cancer itself and Cancer treatment
  • Very intensive treatment such as high dose chemotherapy followed by a stem cell transplant.
  • Side effects of treatment such as fatigue, low levels of red blood cells (anaemia), sleep disturbances or hormonal changes
  • Low mood, stress and anxiety
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Infections
  • Surgery and the drugs used during surgery 
  • Other conditions or illnesses, such as diabetes
  • Treatment to the brain, such as chemotherapy into the fluid around the spinal cord (intrathecal chemotherapy) or radiotherapy to the brain
  • A genetic variation that might make some people more likely to develop chemo brain.
  • A genetic variation that might make some people more likely to develop chemo brain.

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