“Scatterbrained”: Yeah, Chemo Brain is Real

After a few years of wondering what the heck is going on with my head, I joined a Memory and Attention Adaptation Training (MAAT) class generously provided by my cancer center (which I’ll be posting about on a later date).

This is gratifying on two levels: first, that I can learn new strategies for dealing with the memory issues and distractibility that have been plaguing me since finishing breast cancer treatment five years ago; and second, and perhaps more important to me emotionally, that what I am experiencing is REAL. It’s officially termed Chemotherapy Related Cognitive Impairment (CRCI) or, informally, chemo brain.

I’ve been told that “you’re imagining this” (I’m not) or “you’ve always been like this” (I haven’t) or “just focus harder” (I AM!!!) or even “this is just an excuse” (Argh! No!), coming from people who have been annoyed by my memory lapses.

Chemo brain spends a lot of time just wandering around without an idea of how to get anywhere.

My brain isn’t lazy. As a matter of fact, it’s the opposite problem. My brain is too busy.

In the MAAT class, we learned of a study from the University of British Columbia (UBC) by Kam et al. (2016, Clin Neurophysiol) that examined what happens inside those brains that suffer cognitive impairment from cancer treatment, even years later. In that published study, the experimental group consisted of nineteen breast cancer survivors. All had undergone chemotherapy for early stage breast cancer and had subsequently self-reported cognitive issues.

Researchers at UBC compared these survivors against twelve (non-cancer) control subjects in a task that required sustained attention. All the participants’ brains were monitored via electroencephalogram (EEG) both while working on the task and while at rest.

The results were vindicating for me and, I’m sure, for others experiencing this. Normal brains cycle through periods of focus and periods of “wandering”. However, as the UBC researchers stated in a summary of their results (published here): “We found that chemo brain is a chronically wandering brain, they’re essentially stuck in a shut out mode.”

This was true even when the breast cancer survivors thought that they were focusing. Furthermore, the survivors’ brains exhibited activity even when they were instructed to relax.

Great. We know that chemo brain is an undeniable fact for some cancer survivors and can last for years — in this study, up to three years. However, for me and some of the people in my MAAT class, it’s been five years and we’re still dealing with this, which is frustrating. What can be done about it?

When anxiety and chemo brain collide, you get a confused goat tangled up in a rope. That would be me.

It won’t come as a surprise — anxiety makes everything worse, and that holds true for chemo brain too. As mentioned above, I’ll discuss this in greater detail in a later post, but basically, a main focus of the MAAT class is learning to handle stressors in an effort to relieve anxiety.

So now that I know that what I’m experiencing is a real thing, a large part of combatting it is what I’m already trying to do — mindfulness, meditation, yoga and similar sensible self-care. And while it might seem aggravating that even with all that practice I’m still dealing with this, I’m actually bouyed by the fact that every bit of mindfulness helps. The reality is, I’ve made a monumental amount of progress from where I was when I started, five years ago.

And that keeps me going. Where would I be if I wasn’t trying?



Reader-friendly summary:
“‘Chemo brain’ is real, say UBC researchers”, UBC News, Apr 27, 2015, https://news.ubc.ca/2015/04/27/chemo-brain-is-real-say-ubc-researchers/

The published study:
Kam JWY, Brenner CA, Handy TC, Boyd LA, Liu-Ambrose T, Lim HJ, Hayden S, Campbell KL (2016) Sustained attention abnormalities in breast cancer survivors with cognitive deficits post chemotherapy: An electrophysiological study, Clinical Neurophysiology, 127, 369-378. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clinph.2015.03.007
Please note that the above study is not available free online at this time. For a pdf free of charge, contact one of the authors (email address next to their name at link above) or your local university library. Due to copyright issues, I am unable to distribute the full document myself.