“Chemobrain” May Be Due to Stress

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Two small studies suggest that the memory changes and thinking difficulties (called chemobrain or chemofog) experienced by women getting chemotherapy are more likely due to the stress and emotional effect of being diagnosed with breast cancer rather than from the chemotherapy.

In one study done in Australia, the researchers gave memory and thinking tests to 30 women diagnosed with breast cancer who got chemotherapy and compared their scores to the scores of 30 women who were diagnosed with breast cancer but didn't get chemotherapy. Both groups of women experienced the types of memory and thinking problems thought to be associated with chemotherapy. While not all of the women in the study got chemotherapy, all experienced the challenges, life upheaval, and stress that come with breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Earlier research suggests that chemotherapy does cause changes in memory and thinking. Whether or not chemotherapy is directly responsible for the memory and thinking problems, it's clear that many women being treated for breast cancer may have difficulty remembering, thinking, and concentrating. Some women may have trouble with:

  • learning new tasks
  • remembering names
  • paying attention and concentrating
  • finding the right words
  • multitasking
  • organizing thoughts
  • remembering where things are (keys, glasses, etc.)

Many parts of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment besides chemotherapy can contribute to chemofog or chemobrain:

  • medicines that treat side effects
  • low blood cell counts
  • hormonal changes
  • menopause
  • emotional stress, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and depression
  • altered routines, expectations, and responsibilities
  • sleep deprivation and fatigue
  • aging

The good news is that most women who have problems with memory and thinking during breast cancer treatment recover and are able to remember and think clearly after treatment is done.

If you're having thinking and memory problems, there are things you can do to help yourself. In August 2006 Breastcancer.org held an Ask-the-Expert Online Conference on thinking and memory challenges. You might want to check out the transcript to read about other women's experiences and questions, as well as the answers from the Breastcancer.org medical experts. You'll find tips on:

  • managing memory challenges
  • keeping your mind alert
  • getting more and better quality sleep
  • staying safe when you're not so alert

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