Chemotherapy and Mental Side Effects


For many years now there has been chatter in the cancer community that anti-cancer treatment like chemotherapy results in a mental fogginess that many people feel they cannot overcome. This experience is referred colloquially as chemobrain.

Patients will often report that following chemotherapy treatment they lose a bit of their cognitive edge; they feel a little more confused and they don't feel as sharp as they used to.


People tend to lose an edge or two to their mental clarity as they get older, and this simple fact may be partly responsible for chemobrain, and it is one that is often overlooked by patients and health professionals alike. After all, how often do we have our cognitive abilities truly tested so that we can test them again with the same test months or a year later? In other words, lacking a cognitive baseline, it is very hard to know objectively if a person's cognition or memory skills have changed following cancer therapy.

According to one of the leading experts on this phenomenon, Patricia Ganz, MD, not all cancer patients face the same risk of experiencing chemobrain. Her research has uncovered the reality that patients at risk for chemobrain include children and adults treated for brain tumors with whole-brain radiation, as well as leukemia and lymphoma patients who received intraspinal chemotherapy.

Other research suggests that some chemotherapy drugs affect the brain's ability to regenerate brain cells, which could be a primary driving force behind chemobrain. However, this research is ongoing and lacks enough evidence to assert anything one way or the other.


Patients concerned about chemobrain can look into clinical trials that might help to create a baseline for them before they begin treatment, and then be tested against that baseline later. They can also begin mental exercises, even simple ones like crossword puzzles, prior to treatment in an effort to stay sharp. While there are few good answers out there regarding this problem, there are many smart minds at work on it.

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