A breast cancer diagnosis can be one of the most stressful experiences of a person’s life. The decisions related to course of treatment are important and intensely personal. Doctors, family members and others may chime in, but only YOU know what is right for you. If you are thinking about chemotherapy, it is up to you to also know about the risks on all levels, including to mental health.
Chemo Brain and Chemotherapy Side Effects: What’s Really Going On?
You have probably heard of the term “chemo brain.” It is a light-hearted term for a potentially serious problem. Also known as “chemo fog,” chemo brain usually occurs during or shortly after chemotherapy treatments of any kind and can have the following effects:
-difficulty learning new skills
-short-term memory impairment
-shortened attention span
-difficulty with verbal communication/forming words
-taking a long time to complete tasks
The Mayo Clinic states that “[i]t’s unlikely that chemotherapy is the sole cause of concentration and memory problems in cancer survivors.” Recent research, however, has begun to pinpoint the exact mechanisms linking non-brain tumor neurological abnormalities to chemotherapy treatments, including those used for breast cancer.
Stanford Study: Changes in Thinking Seen in Breast Cancer Chemotherapy Patients
The biggest and most significant study to break new ground in this regard was conducted in 2011 by Stanford University researchers with support by the National Institutes of Health. The study built on earlier research and focused on breast cancer patients who had chemotherapy and surgery compared to those who just had surgery. The researchers also compared these two groups to women who did not have breast cancer.
After self-evaluations and functional MRI results were tallied, the Stanford study showed a direct correlation between those women who underwent chemotherapy and specific kinds of cognitive difficulty. In particular, it showed reduced functionality in the prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that is responsible for cognitive behavior, decision making and social behavior. In card-sorting tasks, the women effected by chemotherapy made more errors and took longer to complete the task than women in the other groups.