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brain fog and fatigue

Posts: 3
Joined: May 2004

I am 2 years in remission from a stemcell transplant and it seems like everyone thinks i should be in perfect health.Just cause I smile alot and I am so happy to be alive does'nt mean I don't have crappy days! anyone else out there having troublr with disability ??I would love to feel as good as they think I do !!!

Posts: 6
Joined: Apr 2003

A very common reaction among friends and family is that when your treatment is done, you are cured. The common 'rule' I've been told is you are at LEAST fatigued as the length of your treatment. And, my goodness. Stem Cell is not exactly 6 months of chemo and 6 months of radiation. You know,aside from the chemo brain and fatigue, I am sure you are also dealing with all the emotions of being out of treatment. That's a lonely time. Or at least I am assuming you are out of treatment now and just getting the check ups. I wish you the best in your recovery.

Deanna, 44yr Female, breast cancer, mets to brain, liver, lung, and skin. ER/PR-, Her2+.

gdpawel's picture
Posts: 538
Joined: May 2001

Chemobrain/Cognitive Dysfunction

Unfortunately, this is indeed quite normal. It is estimated that maybe one in five people who undergo chemotherapy will experience what many cancer survivors frequently refer to as "chemobrain" or "chemofog." Women and men who experience chemobrain typically say that they feel that they are not able to concentrate, have a hard time remembering things, have trouble finding the right word when speaking or writing, or can't multitask the way they used to.

This type of cognitive dysfunction is a problem that cancer survivors have been talking about for years. Only recently, though, have researchers begun studying the impact of chemotherapy on cognitive functioning. But it's not an easy area to study. Part of the problem is sorting out which problems are due to chemotherapy and which are due to having a serious illness like cancer that can result in physical debilitation, depression, sleep disruption, hormone shifts (not just sex hormones, but thyroid, melatonin, etc.), and fatigue--all of which can affect cognitive functioning.

For older women, the impact of chemotherapy may be compounded by the natural aging process, which, in and of itself, can be related to the development of cognitive problems. There is some evidence that verbal fluency and word recall changes for some women but not others as they age and their estrogen levels fall. So it is possible that the problems some women think are due to chemotherapy might just be what they'd be experiencing anyway at their age and stage of life. For younger women, the cognitive side effects related to chemotherapy may be compounded by the fact that chemotherapy can put them directly into menopause, which in and of itself causes hormonal changes that can affect cognitive functioning.

There are a number of theories as to why chemobrain may occur. One is that some types of chemotherapy can cross the blood/brain barrier. Another is that the cognitive problems are created by free radicals, the toxic elements that many types of chemotherapy produce. And yet another is that some people have a genetic background that makes them more susceptible to the effects of chemotherapy. Most likely it is not just one factor but many factors that combine to set the stage for chemobrain to occur. However, we still have a lot to learn before we will be able to explain why this problem affects some people and not others or why these problems persist after treatment stops.

As the search for the cause of chemobrain continues, researchers have begun looking at ways to alleviate its impact. Studies now underway are exploring whether Ritalin, which is used to improve fatigue, or Procrit, which increases red blood cell count to improve energy can improve cognitive functioning. This research is still very preliminary, however, and these drugs should only be used as part of a clinical trial.

You should definitely speak with your doctor about the problems you are experiencing to try to rule out other causes. Your doctor should review with you whether depression, the use of medications that are sedating, or sleep problems that are causing fatigue could be factors in the cognitive problems you are experiencing. Developing coping strategies such as making lists, using a tape recorder or Dictaphone, carrying a personal calendar or diary, or taking notes during conversations can also be helpful.

Doing puzzles to stimulate your mind may be helpful. So can reducing stress--which not only can result from such cognitive problems but can also cause them--may also be helpful. Support groups, meditation, and yoga may offer benefits as well.

Ahles, TA, et al.
Neuropsychologic Impact of Standard-Dose Systemic Chemotherapy
in Long-Term Survivors of Breast Cancer and Lymphoma.
Journal of Clinical Oncology Vol. 20. No 2 (January 15), 2002: 485-93.
Brezden CB, Phillips KA, Abdolell M, Bunston T, Tannock
IF Cognitive function in breast cancer patients receiving adjuvant chemotherapy.
Journal of Clinical Oncology (2000 Jul) 18(14): 2695-701
Ferguson RJ, Ahles TA.
Low neuropsychologic performance among adult cancer survivors treated with chemotherapy.
Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports 2003 May; 3(3): 215-22.
Freeman JR, Broshek DK. Assessing
Cognitive dysfunction in breast cancer: What are the tools?
Clinical Breast Cancer 2002 Dec; 3 Supplement 3: S91-9.
Phillips KA, Bernhard J.
Adjuvant Breast Cancer Treatment and Cognitive Function: Current Knowledge and Research Directions.
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Cancer (1999 Feb 1) 85(3): 640-50

Posts: 9
Joined: May 2004

I just found this thread. I completed chemo and radiation for breast cancer 3 years ago, and chemo fog has been the most debiliating long-term effect I've had. My 23 year marriage ended at the same time, which meant I'm now supporting myself and my kids. I am a freelance writer--I had published 4 books before being diagnosed. But my lack of focus is derailing my career. Of course, all the upheaval hasn't helped, either.
I have found working crossword puzzles helps. I stick to easy ones, because I'm not trying to be a puzzle champion--just trying to improve my ability to "find the right word". It's also a great stress-reducer.
I'm considering studying a language to see if that helps. Or taking piano lessons. Kind of "cross-training" for the brain.
Also, I used to be fairly good at math, but my brain doesn't cooperate since I went through chemo. Even balancing my checkbook was difficult at first. A counselor suggested I get some children's math workbooks and I thought I might try that.
Hope these suggestions are helpful.

Posts: 1560
Joined: May 2006

It has been shown thatcertain types of chemotherapy and radiotherapy can affect the male endocrine system and testosterone and thyroid function. Dysfunction of either can impair cognitive functioning.

Both can be tested for and if a deficiency is present can be medicated.

The result can be a return of normal cognitive function.

Endocrine functions of this nature may well be impaired in women as well.

For too long endocrine testing has been ignored in long term cancer survivors.

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