Deanna's Discoveries: Chemo Brain

August 29, 2018 08:42 PM

The first time I had cancer, I was in college.  And I noticed that while I was getting chemo, studying was far more difficult.

My doctor at the time believed my cognitive difficulties were stress related.


Decades later, I now know I had chemo brain.

I’m now facing my fourth cancer battle. And in this edition of Deanna's Discoveries, I sought to answer the following questions: What causes chemo brain? And what can we do about it? For answers, I talked to researchers at the U of R Medical Center.

I, like most patients, have a love-hate relationship with chemotherapy.

These toxins are saving my life while stripping away my hair, energy, and dulling my usually sharp memory. Patients call it 'chemo brain'- but doctors didn't acknowledge that chemo brain was real until the 1990s. 

"Yes, it is real. We've done one of the largest studies to date to validate that this is a real phenomenon," said Michelle Janelsins, Ph.D., director of the Psychoneuroimmunology Laboratory at the University of Rochester Medical Center.  

The lab’s researchers are studying blood samples of a thousand cancer patients. 

"We've done work that shows that chemotherapy elevates proteins in the blood," said Dr. Janelsins. 

And elevations of these essential proteins can affect how well you think.  "We're very interested in looking early-on during treatment or even before treatment at certain factors in the blood to see whether they may predispose someone to developing cognitive changes," said Dr. Janelsins.

Studies show up to 80-percent of patients report problems thinking, processing or remembering information while getting chemotherapy.

So, what should a patient do who is suffering from chemo brain? 

"It's important to bring it up to your doctor because they can make certain referrals and certain recommendations," said Dr. Janelsins. 

Studies show yoga and other forms of exercise actually decrease the inflammation that cause cognitive difficulty. 

I've found that my phone is an essential tool in dealing with chemo brain. I set alarms to help me remember medications, appointments, and the schedules of my three children who play multiple sports and take music lessons.

It’s tough. But researchers assure patients it will get better. 

"Most people recover, so that's the good news."

While most patients do recover, 20 to 35-percent report cognitive problems years after treatment.

Cognitive rehabilitation therapy can help. Therapists use a multidisciplinary approach, tailoring the treatment to the specific needs of each patient.  

The Wilmot Warrior Walk on Sept. 9 helps raise money to support chemo brain and other cancer research.

Hospital leaders say support from the Rochester community has been extraordinarily helpful in funding cancer research and other cancer programs at the University of Rochester. 


Deanna Dewberry

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