A Care Partner Asks: Is Chemo Brain Real?

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Does chemo affect the brain? Dr. Scott Antonia and Sam Vafadar, PA, examine a list of symptoms they call chemo brain and declare its condition may be a result of various factors independent of chemo. Tune in to learn more.

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Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you. 

Jim:

I’m Jim Esslinger, and I’m speaking for my wife.  She’s a cancer patient now going into her 34th month of treatment.

In the beginning, everything was going along okay.  But the terminology that we get a lot of times is called chemo brain. And just recently, they had changed her chemical in the last six or eight months, and now, that seems to be taking effect very badly where she cannot concentrate and not speak so well.

We did the CT brain scan. That showed everything fine. And I guess is this maybe because of the change of the chemical? Is it worse with one as opposed to the other? Or what could we really do about this to help her out?

Andrew Schorr:                  

Sam, do you want to talk about that chemo brain and whether it’s related to the drugs?

Sam Vafadar:      

And some of the chemo drugs, they have unique side effect profiles. Some can cause neuropathy in the feet where it causes feelings of dizziness and off balance. Of course, the fear with lung cancer is, is it chemo brain or is it metastasis? Is it something completely unrelated? And so and you said the CAT scan…

Jim:        

…it was negative.

Sam Vafadar:      

Right. 

Andrew Schorr:                  

Scott?

Dr. Antonia:        

Chemo brain exists.  We don’t know why, what causes it. People are looking at it trying to understand it. But we see it all the time.  In patients, you know, you feel it yourselves all the time. You’re on the chemo, and you feel a little off and distracted and short-term memory and those sorts of things. And you’re off the chemotherapy, and you get better.  So but there are also lots of other things. Some people were destined to begin to have memory problems anyway.

And if they never had the cancer, this would have happened anyway.  There are lots of other drugs that we give to people that could affect it—sleeping pills and anti-anxiety pills and pain pills.  And so there can be metabolic disturbances, the fatigue itself or the insomnia. So it could be multi-factorial. You’ve got to filter that, once again, through your main doctor who knows the whole story to sort out how much of it is chemo brain versus how much of it is something else that is reversible.

Sam Vafadar:      

The fatigue as well, cancer-related fatigue, oftentimes, it’s confused with just fatigue, in general. But we know that cancer-related fatigue is there’s a unique mechanism behind it. And so it’s different than just saying fatigue for the general population. So that comes with its own unique set of challenges to deal with as well.

Andrew Schorr:                  

Are you talking about the fatigue or the chemo brain? He wanted to know was there anything to fight that? I mean, that’s the discussion with your doctors as to whether it is chemo brain from the chemo or all of these 10 other things he mentioned. To get at that, and then to decide, sure, are there changes in drug therapies or dosages?  I just want to mention that one thing, too, is a lot of us can use a nap in the afternoon.

So do we need a nap, or is it fatigue brought on by anything in our blood counts or something that needs to be addressed by the clinical team? So again, Sam and his peers around the country are your men to talk about how you’re feeling, how you’re doing, and if there is any change, because it may be fatigue related to your illness or the treatments. And something can be done, or you could need a nap.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you. 

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Page last updated on August 26, 2015