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What causes Chemo Brain?

what causes chemo brain
Cancer survivors are heroic. Unfortunately, for many of them their battle doesn't end there.

Chemo Brain is a collection of symptoms many cancer patients experience during or after chemotherapy, including problems with attention span, memory, and learning new information. 

The term Chemo Brain was coined in 2001 by Dr. George Durston of Sloan Kettering. He used it to describe the cognitive impairments experienced by about half of his breast-cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

It’s caused by the stress response to cancer and treatment for cancer, which can affect someone’s brain health. Chemotherapy drugs may also cause problems with concentration and cognitive function. Unfortunately, there is no single pattern for symptoms of Chemo Brain.

 The type and intensity of symptoms are different in each person. So it can’t be predicted who will get it or how severe the symptoms will be.

Cancer changes how you think about life – your priorities, relationships, and future. As a result, you may experience depression or mood swings to the extent you never had before. Anxiety or panic attacks may also occur. 

You may find it hard to be around people and socialize. You may crave solitude. Patients who have overcome cancer may notice their bodies have changed. Even in complete remission, they will likely experience a lingering (and very reasonable) fear of their cancer returning.

Atrophy of brain grey matter is also seen in patients with Chemo Brain, but the grey matter volume of this area is not correlated with cognitive impairment. In a study by Scherer et al., researchers found no correlation between grey matter and Chemo Brain. 

Although many variables may affect the severity of symptoms, including age, pre-treatment performance on cognitive tasks, and chemotherapy regimen used, it is clear that chemotherapy can cause significant side effects on cognition. 

Several studies have demonstrated significant cognitive impairment in upwards of 20% of patients who have received chemotherapy.

There are some things you can do to manage Chemo Brain symptoms:

  • Eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of fluids.
  • Get plenty of rest, exercise, and try to find time for mental breaks.
  • Manage stress by practicing a relaxation technique such as slow breathing or meditation.
  • Take care of your physical health with exercise, a good diet, and sleep hygiene (having a regular bedtime and waking up at the same time each day).

Chemo Brain can be treated with cognitive rehabilitation, which includes various activities designed to bolster the brain’s ability to perform everyday tasks. 

This can include anything from learning new skills like cooking and gardening to memory exercises that help you recall numbers or names. For some patients, medications may also help.