What Happens To Our Brains During Breast Cancer Treatment?

Cancer hasn’t killed us. Our cancer treatment didn’t kill us. Cancer maintenance drugs didn’t kill us, either. Yet, our brains are paralyzed or stuck in a black hole and no longer function as they did before. It’s not just your imagination if you find yourself feeling forgetful, foggy or even flaky during or after undergoing chemotherapy. You may notice you find it hard at times to concentrate, remember names or dates. You may also forget things easily or have trouble doing more than one thing at a time.

I routinely forget other’s names… and claim chemo brain, I didn’t have chemo. I have been on Tamoxifen for 2 and a half years…it also causes chemo brain.

Although often associated with breast cancer, cancer-related cognitive impairment can occur with any type of the disease, including prostate and colon cancer, and in patients undergoing stem cell transplant for leukemia or lymphoma.

Patients who underwent chemotherapy had significantly worse cognitive functioning compared with those who had surgery alone, but women treated with both chemotherapy and hormone therapy had the greatest cognitive deficits.

I think there are several causes of chemo brain. The biggest and most important one is the so called ‘cognitive dysfunction’ as a result of the lovely chemicals they pour into us during treatment. There is a lot of information on this as well as the awareness(finally) of the need to do something about this.

I strongly believe another cause of chemobrain is the stress and ensuing PTSD that causes us to have lapses in our memories as well.

Sleep problems caused by chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and radiation induced insomnia also lead to brain fog, irritability and fatigue.

This raises the issue that while a cancer diagnosis and treatment is harsh on our bodies and on our minds, there needs to be a concerted effort (and more research) on how to improve post treatment care and how to prevent more issues for patients.

The severity and duration of the symptoms differ from person to person. Some cancer survivors may return to work, but find tasks take extra concentration or time. Others will be unable to return to work.

If you experience severe memory or concentration problems that make it difficult to do your job, tell your doctor. You may be referred to an occupational therapist, who can help you adjust to your current job or identify your strengths so that you may find a new job.

In rare cases, people with memory and concentration problems are unable to work and must apply for disability benefits. Ask your health care team for a referral to an oncology social worker or a similar professional who can help you understand your options.
From a patient’s point of view, a cancer diagnosis should not be a life changing event. It can be a life affecting event but it should not alter you forever – either emotionally or physically.

Signs and symptoms of chemo brain may include the following:
Being unusually disorganized
Confusion
Difficulty concentrating
Difficulty finding the right word
Difficulty learning new skills
Difficulty multitasking
Fatigu
Feeling of mental fogginess
Short attention span
Short-term memory problems
Agitated easily
Taking longer than usual to complete routine tasks.
Trouble with verbal memory, such as remembering a conversation.
Trouble with visual memory, such as recalling an image or list of words.

Learn what you can start doing right now to deal with it more effectively.

1. Practice mindfulness: Taking a yoga class, learning guided relaxation techniques and even prayer or meditation might boost your memory, increase your concentration and even help you sleep more soundly.

2. Get Physical: Exercise may improve cognitive processing speed and help clear the doggies of chemo brain.

3. Train Your Brain: Brain exercises should definitely be on your to do list. Don’t worry; this is not as difficult as it might sound. In fact, it can be fun! Look for apps, word games, card games or other fun pastimes that challenge your brain.

4. Rest: Make sure you are getting sufficient sleep at night. Don’t feel guilty about taking breaks to put up your feet or nap during the day. Fighting fatigue can help enhance your cognitive abilities and give you the energy you need to focus.

5. Eat Well: A nutritious diet is an important part of your overall wellness and it can potentially offset chemo fog, as well. Some experts recommend cutting foods that increase inflammation, such as sugar, alcohol and dairy.

6. Follow Routines: Establishing and sticking to a schedule can help you cope with chemo brain because you don’t have to expend as much mental energy thinking about what to do and when. Get into the habit of performing everyday tasks at the same time and in the same order.

7. Utilize Tools: Calendars, lists and reminders can alleviate the stress of trying to remember appointments, events or responsibilities you need to handle. Use the method that works best for you, such as a paper calendar, an app on your phone or a dry erase board.

8. One Thing at a Time: Multitasking is especially difficult when you are struggling with chemo fog. Rather than trying to deal with several things at once and becoming overwhelmed, focus on completing the task at hand before taking up anything else.

9. Relax: Stress and anxiety can diminish cognitive ability, so it is especially important to eliminate it when you are fighting chemo brain. Practice relaxation techniques. Take time out for activities that you enjoy. Seek counseling or medical attention for help with persistent anxiety or depression.

10. Don’t be afraid to Ask For Help: Your partner, children or coworkers can help you with reminders. Your employer or teacher may be willing to reduce your workload or give you extra time on assignments that take a great deal of concentration. Your doctor or cancer care team may be able to help you identify issues and offer solutions to reduce the effects of chemo brain, as well. You are not in this alone.

And remember, when all else fails, there is always a way to find humor in our challenges!  Wearing a Chemo Brain t-shirt will put a smile on your face and that of those around you and provide you with a good excuse for those forgetful moments!

There are many ailments out there without cures but then why is ‘cancer’ the only word which is so scary? We need to take the fear out cancer and the injuries out of its treatment. This would help our brains a great deal.

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