Your Brain After ChemoYour Brain After Chemo — By Idelle Davidson on October 3, 2009 at 9:09 am
It wasn’t until I joined a support group after completing chemotherapy for breast cancer that I realized there was something to this thing called “chemo brain.”
I had certainly experienced it: my head filled with so much fog that on bad days I couldn’t remember my own phone number. But then others in and outside of my group began to share their own stories.
For some, making the smallest decisions overwhelmed them. They’d forget to pick up their kids from school. They’d leave water running in the sink and food burning on the stove. Focus was nonexistent.
Where they had been articulate prior to treatment, they now found themselves groping for words. And since for many of them their doctors had never even mentioned the possibility of cognitive issues following chemotherapy, they thought they were going nuts.
Well, I’m here to tell you that chemo brain or post-chemo brain is real. And if you’ve experienced it, you’re not crazy. You’re certainly not alone.
In fact, based on studies of breast cancer and lymphoma patients, up to 80 percent of people who undergo chemo experience some amount of cognitive impairment. The good news is that for most the fog lifts on its own (mine did). About half return to normal by one-year post treatment. Three-fourths spring back after two years. One-fourth may remain impaired for years.
But I didn’t know any of these statistics until we started writing our book, “Your Brain After Chemo: A Practical Guide to Lifting the Fog and Getting Back Your Focus.. My co-author Dr. Dan Silverman at UCLA is an expert in the field of chemotherapy and cognition. He was one of the first scientists to show through brain imaging that chemotherapy can change brain metabolism and affect thinking abilities.
What was important to us was to not only validate the concerns of people who experience memory problems after treatment but to explain the science behind this assault to the brain and offer strategies to help.
So what can you do if your mind is mush? Well, along with a number of steps we outline in the book, including tips to organize your life, eating healthy brain foods, and getting the right kind of sleep, one big-ticket suggestion is controlling your level of stress. Why is that? Because both stress and depression can cloud memory and intensify brain fog.
It’s probably no great surprise then that yoga, the natural de-stressor can go a long way in helping with post-chemo brain. There’s also the tie-in with yoga’s ability to help with cancer-related fatigue. Research shows that inflammatory molecules called cytokines are elevated in some survivors who are fatigued and cytokines may indirectly cause chemo-related cognitive problems. So helping reduce fatigue may lessen the fog.
Have you experienced post-chemo brain? If so, have you tried yoga or meditation? Did it help? How about exercise? Best is the kind that leaves you feeling spent but relaxed, such as aerobic walking or swimming. What has worked for you?
Idelle Davidson is an award-winning journalist and a breast cancer survivor. She is the co-author with Dr. Dan Silverman at UCLA of the new book, “Your Brain After Chemo: A Practical Guide to Lifting the Fog and Getting Back Your Focus.” Visit: Your Brain After Chemo
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