Cancer Patients Can Get ‘Chemo Brain’; Treatment Available

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

Thumbnail for 7731By Dr. Mallika Marshall


Sixty-nine-year-old Susan Harden began her battle with breast cancer six years ago. “I had surgery,” explains Susan, “And that was followed by two different rounds of chemotherapy, followed by radiation.”

Soon after her first round of chemo, Susan became confused. The former science teacher, quick-witted all her life, all of a sudden couldn’t remember how to do simple tasks.

“I walked into the bathroom,” she says, ”I took my toothbrush in my hand, and I couldn’t figure out what to do next.”

Susan went months without answers but then happened to mention her symptoms to a nurse.

“She said you have chemo brain,” explains Susan. “She said you have a difficult time trying to figure out paper or plastic when you go to the supermarket. And I went are you kidding me? It’s a word?”

Dr. Montie Meyer, a psychiatrist at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, says it does seem that people who have had chemotherapy for cancer are more at risk. She runs a small clinic for patients dealing with chemo brain and has treated Susan for it. Dr. Meyer says up to sixty percent of patients undergoing treatment for all types of cancers can develop chemo brain to some degree. It can last for months, sometimes years.

Dr. Meyer says brain exercises can help.

“If you put yourself on a schedule and doing those exercises half hour 2-3 times a week,” explains Dr. Meyer, “You really can make a difference.”

Susan uses a computer app called Lumosity to improve memory and attention.

More oncologists are recognizing chemo brain and Susan hopes more will discuss it with their patients. But Dr. Meyer says having chemo brain is certainly better than the alternative.

“You can’t have chemo brain unless you are alive,” says Dr. Meyer.

Susan, now a grandmother of four, says she’s happy to be alive but has to get used to her new reality.

“I don’t perceive that I am ever going to be 100-percent what I was before,” says Susan. “But we all understand that you are Sue before cancer, and Sue after cancer.”

Dr. Meyer says about ten percent of patients may have long-lasting effects. Susan says that talking to other patients with chemo brain has helped immensely and urges anyone out there with similar symptoms to join a support group.