“Chemobrain” Isn’t Limited to Women Who Get Chemo for Breast Cancer

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Many women who get chemotherapy to treat breast cancer say they have problems remembering, thinking, and concentrating during and after treatment. These problems are commonly called "chemobrain" or "chemofog" -- doctors call these issues "cognitive impairment" or "cognitive problems."

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.)

A study found that thinking and memory problems affect people diagnosed with a variety of cancers, no matter what type of treatment they received. In other words, chemobrain isn't limited to only women who get chemotherapy to treat breast cancer. People who get radiation and hormonal therapy to treat other types of cancer also can have problems remembering and thinking. These results were presented at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Conference on the Science of Cancer Health Disparities.

Called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), this study asked 9,819 men and women -- 1,305 of whom were treated for cancer -- about problems with memory or thinking. Compared to people who hadn't been treated for cancer, people who had been treated were 50% more likely to report memory and thinking problems. About 14% of people who had been treated for cancer reported problems with memory loss after treatment, compared to only 8% who never had cancer treatment.

People diagnosed with cancer who had thinking and memory problems had received many different cancer treatments -- no treatment was common to everyone who reported problems. Some people got chemotherapy, others got radiation therapy, and still others got hormonal therapy. The only thing they had in common was that they had all been treated for cancer. It may be that treatment AND the actual cancer may affect brain function in some people.

The researchers found a number of factors that may contribute to thinking and memory problems, including:

  • medicines to treat side effects
  • low blood cell counts
  • hormonal changes
  • menopause
  • emotional stress, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and depression
  • altered routines, expectations, and responsibilities
  • lack of sleep and fatigue
  • getting older

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

If you've been diagnosed with breast cancer and are having thinking and memory problems, there are things you can do to help yourself. You might want to check out the transcript of Breastcancer.org's Ask-the-Expert Online Conference on Managing Chemo Brain to read about other women's experiences and questions, as well as the answers from 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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