What is Chemo Brain?
Among the many side effects and complications that can accompany cancer is a sort of mental fogginess that can appear even before chemo treatments begin. This cloud of cognitive impairment is commonly referred to as “chemo brain,” although it isn’t necessarily caused by chemotherapy and can linger long after treatments have ended. The exact nature of this phenomenon can be unclear, even to those with firsthand experience. What is chemo brain, and how long does a cancer patient have to deal with it? To find out, keep reading as the team at Chemo Mouthpiece™ explain this condition in greater detail.
How Chemo Brain Affects Cancer Patients
Though it is often used to describe a specific symptom or a set of symptoms, “chemo brain” is actually an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of cognitive impairments. These symptoms range from the inconvenient to the truly debilitating, and they often are a significant drain on a patient’s quality of life. Some common signs of chemo brain include:
- Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
- Issues with short-term memory
- General confusion or a sense of fogginess
- Trouble recalling common words or completing simple tasks
- An inability to multitask or learn new skills
While some of these effects are less severe than others, all of them can lead to frustration, and many of them can exacerbate the mood-related issues common in cancer patients, namely depression and anxiety. All told, chemo brain can be one of the most demanding chemotherapy side effects.
What Causes Chemo Brain?
It may be widespread, but chemo brain is not yet well-understood. The exact cause of this condition is still unknown, though there is evidence to suggest that more than one factor is to blame. Many of the side effects of chemotherapy could cause some of the symptoms described above, not to mention the many ways that the stress of a cancer diagnosis can manifest in those who have to deal with this deadly disease. The cancer itself could play a role, depending on the type and location of the tumor, and the lifestyle changes that come with a major illness and hospitalization could have an effect as well.
For example, proper nutrition is an essential component of healthy brain activity and mental acuity, but it is often undermined by the effects of cancer treatments. Chemotherapy, in particular, can cause a number of conditions that limit a patient’s food intake; these can include oral mucositis – mouth sores caused by chemo – as well as nausea or changes in taste or smell. In fact, malnutrition is not uncommon in cancer patients as side effects pile up, and it represents a significant danger to their overall well-being and chances for recovery.
Other factors that could contribute to the development of chemo brain include:
- Trouble sleeping
- General fatigue
- Changes to hormones or body chemistry
- The medications used during treatment
Unfortunately, there is little that a patient with chemo brain can do to address their condition, aside from finishing their cancer treatments as quickly as possible. Aside from that, observing healthy habits is the best option for these patients; make sure you try to get enough rest, eat nutritious foods, and work your brain to keep it as sharp as possible. Try to recognize that your mental issues are likely beyond your control and do what you can to cope with them in the meantime. If you are concerned with your mental state during your treatment or if chemo brain is impacting your day-to-day life, please discuss the issue with your cancer care team.
How Long Does Chemo Brain Last?
As with many of the problems caused by cancer, it can be difficult to generalize about how long a specific issue or condition might last for patients. Many of those who experience chemo brain will see their mental state improve fairly quickly once their treatments have ended and their health has improved, but it is also possible that the cognitive dysfunction could last for years.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology tested cancer survivors at four points: just before their treatment began, 80 days after it was finished, 1 year after treatment, and 5 years after treatment. The researchers found that although all those studied saw significant improvements in cognitive functions, as many as 40% of those tested still had some form of chemo brain, though at a much lower magnitude than they experienced during treatment. Still, the frustration of not being entirely back to normal even after 5 years have passed can be difficult to deal with.
Thankfully, most patients will see their symptoms clear up in the weeks following their treatment. Though it may linger for a while, chances are your chemo brain will return to normal as your body continues to heal and your strength comes back. Don’t lose hope, and do your best to take care of yourself, even when it feels like a chore.
Fight Chemotherapy Symptoms with the Chemo Mouthpiece™
If you or someone you know is fighting through chemotherapy treatments, we may be able to help. Oral mucositis is one of the most painful and debilitation side effects patients experience during chemo, but the Chemo Mouthpiece™ – a simple oral cryotherapy device – can lessen those symptoms, giving you one fewer condition to worry about at this stressful time in your life. To find out more about how the Chemo Mouthpiece™ can mitigate the worst of your mucositis symptoms and help improve your quality of life, visit us online or call (866) 461-7518 today.