Sunday, April 29, 2007

Chemo Brain: not just a slogan on a t-shirt

This article focused on breast-cancer survivors, but chemo brain is a fact of life for many other survivors as well...

Extracts from
Chemotherapy Fog Is No Longer Ignored as Illusion
by Jane Gross for the New York Times April 29, 2007

On an Internet chat room popular with breast cancer survivors, one thread — called "Where's My Remote?" — turns the mental fog known as chemo brain into a stand-up comedy act.

One woman reported finding five unopened gallons of milk in her refrigerator and having no memory of buying the first four. A second had to ask her husband which toothbrush belonged to her.

At a family celebration, one woman filled the water glasses with turkey gravy. Another could not remember how to carry over numbers when balancing the checkbook.

Once, women complaining of a constellation of symptoms after undergoing chemotherapy — including short-term memory loss, an inability to concentrate, difficulty retrieving words, trouble with multitasking and an overarching sense that they had lost their mental edge — were often sent home with a patronizing "There, there."

But attitudes are changing as a result of a flurry of research and new attention to the after-effects of life-saving treatment. There is now widespread acknowledgment that patients with cognitive symptoms are not imagining things, and a growing number of oncologists are rushing to offer remedies, including stimulants commonly used for attention-deficit disorder and acupuncture.

"Chemo brain is part of the language now, and just to have it acknowledged makes a difference." Anne Grant, ... who had high-dose chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant in 1995, said she could not concentrate well enough to read, garbled her sentences and struggled with simple decisions like which socks to wear.

Virtually all cancer survivors who have had toxic treatments like chemotherapy experience short-term memory loss and difficulty concentrating during and shortly afterward, experts say. But a vast majority improve. About 15 percent ... remain distracted years later, according to some experts.

Most oncologists agree that the culprits include very high doses of chemotherapy ...

The new interest in chemo brain is, in effect, a testimony to enormous strides in the field. Patients who once would have died now live long enough to have cognitive side effects, just as survivors of childhood leukemia did many years ago, forcing new treatment protocols to avoid learning disabilities.

"A large number of people are living long and normal lives," said Dr. Patricia Ganz, an oncologist at U.C.L.A. who is one of the nation's first specialists in the late side effects of treatment. "It's no longer enough to cure them. We have to acknowledge the potential consequences and address them early on."

As researchers look for a cause, cancer survivors are trying to figure out how to get through the day by sharing their experiences, and by tapping expertise increasingly being offered online by Web sites like and

...approaching a doctor does not guarantee help. Susan Mitchell, 48, who does freelance research on economic trends, complained to her oncologist in Jackson, Miss., that her income had been halved since her breast cancer treatment last year because everything took longer for her to accomplish. She said his reply was a shrug.

"They see their job as keeping us alive, and we appreciate that," Ms. Mitchell said. "But it's like everything else is a luxury. These are survivor issues, and they need to get used to the fact that lots of us are surviving."

Among women like Ms. Mitchell, lost A.T.M. cards are as common as missing socks. Children arrive at birthday parties a week early. Wet clothes wind up in the freezer instead of the dryer. Prosthetic breasts and wigs are misplaced at the most inopportune times. And simple words disappear from memory: "The thing with numbers" will have to do for the word "calculator."

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At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey!! This happens to me all the time and I'm not a cancer survivor. I don't know why but is embarrassing not to remember the name of the person you work with or simply to lose your train of thought. Sometimes I'm in the middle of an argument and I digress a little and... Puff it's gone, I don't know what I was talking about. I know how frustrating it can be, but then again I'm used to it.... I guess it is worst when this has never happened to you before....Hopefully this will help to the better understanding of people that need a little extra patience and kindness ……like me ;)


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