Ask the Experts: How to get clarity through the chemo brain cloud

January 24, 2013 | by Hiu Chung So

Cancer patients and their caregivers have long been aware of the foggy-headed feeling that accompanies cancer treatments, but this so-called “chemo brain” effect has not been studied until fairly recently. At tonight's Ask the Experts session, City of Hope oncology nurse Denice Economou, R.N., M.N., C.N.S., A.O.C.N., will shed light on what is known about chemo brain and what can be done about it.

Chemo brain can cause a myriad of cognitive deficits, but there are ways to cope with and compensate for them (Credit: Jupiterimages) Chemo brain can cause myriad cognitive deficits, but there are ways to cope with, and compensate for, them. (Credit: Jupiterimages)

Here’s a quick primer for those not familiar with this condition:

What is chemo brain?

Known clinically as cancer-related cognitive dysfunction, chemo brain refers to mental changes that cancer patients notice during or after treatment. Economou said this can include deficits in memory, attention span and reaction speed or trouble with higher-level functions such as planning, problem-solving and multitasking. Other symptoms include recurring difficulties in remembering names, recalling words and completing sentences.{C}

How often does chemo brain occur?

The studies are not clear about the incidence of chemo brain among cancer patients. “Statistics have shown anywhere from 17% to 75% of patients experience cognitive impairment following chemotherapy,” Economou said. Sometimes it's difficult to pinpoint whether such impairment is due to cancer, its treatment, other confounding conditions or simply normal aging, she added.

How long does chemo brain lasts?

"One of the problems of chemo brain is that you don't know if it will be a brief occurrence or a long-term change," Economou said, again noting that long-term effects may be due to other conditions or normal aging. On a positive note, the American Cancer Society does report that "chemo brain is usually mild and goes away over time" and that most cases do not warrant a change in treatment plan.

What are some current treatments for chemo brain?

“Studies have not shown a significant improvement in people who do brain-building exercises,” Economou said. But she noted that memory and attention-adaptation training may help maintain and improve quality of life for patients with chemo brain. Stimulant medications have also been used in some patients after chemotherapy on the theory that they help keep patients alert and enable the neurons to fire better, Economou said.

What can patients and their caregivers do about chemo brain?

“Helping patients maintain their function is important, and this can include rehabilitating their cognitive skills or teaching them strategies to cope with and compensate for their deficits,” Economou said.

These strategies include following familiar routines, using a planner to keep track of appointments, allowing extra time to complete tasks and informing loved ones and caregivers of the condition so they can provide support. Regular exercise, a healthy diet and adequate sleep may help too.

For more information about chemo brain — and pain and fatigue — during cancer treatment, participate in tonight’s Ask the Experts in-person or tune in to the live streaming session from 6 to 8 p.m. Pacific Time.

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