Clear thinking about Chemobrain

If you or someone you love has ever had chemotherapy, chances are you are familiar with the expression “chemobrain”. What used to be a casual expression is now recognized by the medical profession as a potential side effect of some drugs used in cancer treatment, including the aromatase inhibitors used specifically for breast cancer. The Gathering Place is providing several programs this summer aimed at identifying and helping to reduce the problems of chemobrain. 

Recently we talked with Dr. Beth McLaughlin, a palliative care physician with Seidman Cancer Centers, who will be speaking at The Gathering Place on Chemobrain. This field of study is in its infancy, so the parameters of the patient’s experience, the method of diagnosing the problem, and the solutions are still not well-defined. The consequences might be short term during and just after the infusions, or they may linger for years. The specific areas of deficit might be as mild as forgetting where you left your keys, or severe enough to interfere with your ability to do your job well. We don’t know what areas of the brain are being affected, but there are now studies being conducted looking at pre- and post chemotherapy cognitive performance.

Dr. McLaughlin has noticed that patient themselves are usually MUCH more aware of and bothered by the cognitive changes. Family and friends might not notice any obvious differences, but the patient reports that they used to love reading and now can’t concentrate on a book, or they used to love puzzles and now find them too frustrating. These are subtle changes that might be described as feeling like their brain is “cloudy” or “fuzzy”.  With mild changes, Dr. McLaughlin might suggest increasing your physical and mental activity level and trying to be patient, as recovery can easily take 6 to 12 months.

When chemobrain goes beyond misplacing the keys to the car, your doctor might suggest a prescription for the drugs more commonly used with attention-deficit disorder in students. In more extreme cases, researchers are also looking at the drugs that are currently used for Alzheimer’s dementia.  While it is normal for patients and family to worry that changes in the ability to focus are potential signs of cancer having spread to the brain, Dr. McLaughlin is quick to point out that metastasis usually shows up in physical changes such as pain, persistent headaches, sleepiness and problems with balance or motor skills. Cognitive changes would need to be sudden or severe for a physician to suspect spread of disease.

We have several books in our libraries that discuss chemobrain, and many programs in our calendar that incorporate the suggestions above. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your medical team with any questions.

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