By Cara Scinto
Calling a breast cancer diagnosis overwhelming is an understatement. From the moment you hear the words, "you have cancer" the mind goes into overdrive. From the whirlwind appointments, the need to make critical decisions, and jumping into surgery and various therapies, it's no wonder our minds become distracted. But aside from the discombobulation a cancer diagnosis throws at us, is it possible that our treatments are impairing our cogitative function?
What exactly is “Chemo brain?” We’ve all heard the term. Perhaps we’ve also, on occasion, experienced the fog associated with cancer treatment. According to the Mayo Clinic “Chemo brain is a common term used by cancer survivors to describe thinking and memory problems that can occur during and after cancer treatment”. It is also referred to as chemo fog, (cancer-related) cognitive impairment or cognitive dysfunction. Examples include decreases in short-term memory, difficulty finding words, concentrating and multitasking.
The causes of concentration and memory problems aren't well-understood. According to Fremonta Meyer, MD, a clinical psychiatrist in Dana-Farber's Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care, suggests that "Cyclophosphamide, Adriamycin, 5-FU, and Taxol seem to be noteworthy culprits of chemo brain, but there are others that can cause the condition. Dose dense chemotherapy may be associated with more chemo-brain symptoms, but chemotherapy can cause symptoms regardless of whether that specific drug crosses the blood-brain barrier."
No matter the cause, chemo brain can be a frustrating and debilitating side effect of cancer and its treatment. There are teams of researchers working to understand the memory changes that cancer patients endure during and post treatment.
The Mayo Clinic associates the following symptoms with Chemo brain:
Signs and symptoms of chemo brain may include the following:
• Being unusually disorganized
• Difficulty concentrating
• Difficulty finding the right word
• Difficulty learning new skills
• Difficulty multitasking
• Feeling of mental fogginess
• Short attention span
• Short-term memory problems
• Taking longer than usual to complete routine tasks
• Trouble with verbal memory, such as remembering a conversation
• Trouble with visual memory, such as recalling an image or list of words
With this in mind we turned to survivingbreastcancer.org friend Cara Scinto. Cara is a Certified Dementia Practitioner, Personal Trainer, with an MS in Nutrition and an agile, sensible website: TheBalancedBod.com. Cara writes:
“As if having cancer isn’t hard enough, the side effects of treatment can seem even worse to deal with. Chemo brain - a type of dementia - can interfere with memory and judgement; not something helpful to a patient facing doctors appointments, taking medications and all of the other things life throws your way. The good news is that it does not have to last forever. There are techniques you can use to cope with this frustrating side effect of chemotherapy:
1. Make lists. If you are tech savvy, use a note on your phone. You have the option to make it shareable with a family member or your physician.
2. Keep your mind active. Word puzzles, test yourself while you watch jeopardy, memorize a short children’s book, or attend an online class that interests you.
3. Meditate daily. You can use an app like insight timer or reach out to me for a curated YouTube playlist - just for you. Having a mindfulness practice can help minimize distractions and drop into your calming breath when you need it most.
4. Tell a loved one what you’re going through. Tell your family, so that they’ll understand if you forget things you normally wouldn’t forget. They may be able to help and encourage you.
5. Speak with an oncology social worker. If living with symptoms of Chemo brain makes you anxious or sad, seek help. Being a part of a support group and making use of resources such as survivingbreastcancer.org can be a comforting reminder that you are not alone.”
Do you experience chemo-brain? What tips and strategies do you recommend? Send us an email and let us know! (firstname.lastname@example.org)