Is Chemobrain Real?

Last updated: March 2021

Many cancer patients experience a phenomenon known as chemobrain during or following chemotherapy or other anticancer treatments. Chemobrain manifests as memory problems, mental fog, and cognitive impairment or dysfunction.

“When we’re talking about chemobrain, a lot of people question if it’s actually a thing,” says Dr. Karen Pollard, a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialization in neuropsychology, who recently spoke to a group of lung cancer patients and caregivers. “A lot of people didn’t believe that it existed. Even people in the medical community, well-renowned physicians, questioned if it was an actual problem. They questioned that because for a long time there was no evidence that chemotherapy could cross the blood-brain barrier. They asked, ‘How can chemotherapy be causing chemobrain if it’s not getting into the brain?’

“However, compelling research—focused primarily on breast cancer patients who underwent chemotherapy - shows that most of those patients reported symptoms of chemobrain. Up to 85 percent of breast cancer patients who underwent chemotherapy reported symptoms of chemobrain. If 85 percent of people are experiencing this - it’s a thing. Those of us in the medical community may not have yet figured out how it works or why it happens, but it happens.”

When do we feel the effects of chemobrain?

Individuals respond differently to treatment, Dr. Pollard says. However, for most people experiencing chemobrain, the onset is during chemotherapy treatment and for a short period afterward.

“Then symptoms get better,” she says.

Others experience chemobrain during chemotherapy - but it never goes away. It lasts forever. There is a third subset of people who do not have any symptoms of chemobrain during chemotherapy or right afterward; however, years later, they develop chemobrain symptoms related to the chemo.

“It can come in all forms. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not experiencing your own reality.”

How does chemo brain affect us?

Research suggests chemobrain begins on a cellular level. It can manifest in various ways. For example, one person may only experience difficulty remembering dates. Another person may have trouble focusing. While another may experience problems with dates, focusing, and other cognitive issues.

“The biggest piece of brainpower affected is processing speed,” explains Dr. Pollard. “Everything has slowed down when we have chemobrain. It basically affects your executive functioning. Think of executive functioning as the CEO of your brain—it is responsible for planning, organizing, problem-solving, dividing your attention. Any functioning like that is going to be more difficult with chemobrain. It can also impact short-term memory or more appropriately recent memory acquisition. In other words, it’s not going to affect your memory of things from 20 years ago, but it may make it hard to remember what you had for breakfast.”

Read the continuation in Is Chemobrain Real? Part 2.

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