82% of Cancer Patients Report ‘Chemo Brain’ During, After Treatment

June 05, 2006

Patients complain of memory, concentration problems months after chemotherapy for cancer.

More than 80 percent of people who receive chemotherapy for cancer report annoying memory and concentration problems that linger for months, according to a University of Rochester Medical Center study released today. Scientists recommend additional research to find ways to prevent “chemo brain” and improve millions of U.S. cancer survivors’ quality of life.

“It’s a very subtle and frustrating side effect of cancer treatment that many patients say interfere with their daily lives,” said Sadhna Kohli, Ph.D., research assistant professor at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center. Forgetfulness, an inability to concentrate or complete thoughts, and a recurring sense of fogginess are common complaints, according to the research presented today at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Atlanta.

“Chemo brain” has been the source of much debate in recent years. There have been a series of small neuropsychological studies demonstrating that chemotherapy for cancer impairs cognitive ability. Many of the studies have been small and primarily focused on women with breast cancer.

Kohli analyzed surveys of 595 people with various cancers, mostly breast and prostate cancers, in 2001 and 2002 treated at 17 sites around the country. They completed questionnaires before treatment, within two weeks after completion, and again six months later, rating the problem as minimal to severe.

In total, 82 percent reported difficulties throughout treatment process and six months later that figure dropped to 76 percent. Interestingly, half of the patients reported concentration and memory trouble before chemotherapy treatment, which indicates that a diagnosis of cancer can be so stressful that it debilitates people, Kohli said.

“The research shows that the chemotherapy does exacerbate the cognitive problems that patients face and with time they decrease. However, the reduction doesn’t bring them back to the starting point before their chemotherapy treatment and that’s very difficult for them” Kohli said.

She recommends further research on the use of medications to help reduce chemotherapy’s impact on cognitive abilities, and advises patients to keep a record of when they experience concentration or memory problems and discuss them with their doctors.

“Recognizing and acknowledging the side effects of treatment is absolutely critical in preparing patients for their treatment,” says Jennifer Griggs, M.D., M.P.H., co-director of the Comprehensive Breast Cancer Program at the Wilmot Cancer Center.  “It is interesting in this study that many patients had memory and concentration problems before beginning treatment, indicating the profound effects that a cancer diagnosis has on multiple aspects of quality of life.”

The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences.

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