Is Chemo Brain Real?

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

If you ask someone who has gone through breast cancer treatment if chemo brain is a real thing they will 100% say "yes". If you speak with some doctors about suffering from chemo brain and probe a bit deeper about long term side effects, you may hear a different response. Some scholars think that the jury is still out on whether or not chemo brain is real.

Consequences from aggressive chemotherapy treatment include nausea, hot flashes, and hair loss, but why does "chemo brain" or "chemo fog" not always make the list? In this blog we are going to address this debate and let you know how you can get involved in advancing the research on this important topic!

What is Chemo Brain?

According to the Mayo Clinic, chemo brain is a term used to describe the mental and cognitive challenges one experiences in day to day tasks. It's been described as being in a daze or heavy cloudy fogginess. It is also described as being a very debilitating and frustrating side effect of cancer treatment. Understandably so, imagine not being able to articulate your thoughts because the word is at the tip of your tongue but you just can't get it out. You use so much mental energy to concentrate, focus, and stay organized that it is almost impossible to muscle through a 9-5 workday without wanting to take a nap. Fatigue sets in and short term memory may even be compromised.

So why the debate?

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center acknowledges that chemo brain is a legitimate diagnosis and several others including Dr. Susan Krigel, Ph.D. agree that chemo brain is a complex and evolving science. The challenge is that researchers have only recently begun to conduct studies on the cognitive impact of chemotherapy. Prior to the 1990's there was no scientific evidence to support the antidotal claims breast cancer patients were describing despite the fact that 16-75% of this population was experiencing some degree of memory dysfunction.

Interestingly, there are so many factors that must be taken into consideration with regards to memory and brain function. According to Krigel (2015) considerations need to be made in terms of age, genetic predisposition, baseline cognitive performance, diet, and hormonal levels to name a few.

As you can see:

More research is needed so that we can obtain a better understanding of the short-term and long-term impact of chemotherapy on memory and cognitive performance among those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Here's how you can take action and help advance research.

Since 2004, the lab at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD) has been studying the effects of cancer chemotherapy on the brain, and on cognitive abilities such as memory and concentration.

As you may know firsthand or from others, chemo brain can have significant negative effects on quality of life, but we still don't really understand what causes it, and more importantly, we do not know how to treat and prevent it.

Susanne Withrow from UCD is looking to learn more about the factors that are associated with the experience of chemo brain symptoms.

She and her lab are studying the effects of breast cancer treatments on cognitive functioning among women with and without a history of breast cancer between the ages of 35 and 85 years. If you would like, you may choose to voluntarily participate in the anonymous 20-30 minute survey which focuses on background information, memory, concentration, and mood.

The research has been approved by the Colorado Multiple institutional Review Board (COMIRB, Protocol #15-1509), which is responsible for approving the adherence to ethical standards of all human subjects research conducted at the University of Colorado Denver.

Click Here to take the survey now.

If you have questions about this study please feel free to contact Susanne Withrow directly.

Thank you from the SBC team and helping us advance research!


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