Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work
AUGUST 31, 2017
It has been a relief that chemobrain is now recognized as a real and authentic problem for some people during and post chemotherapy. For years, the establishment seemed to try to avoid owning this, and people were advised that any cognitive issues were likely due to stress and fatigue. In other words: Buck up.
We don't know why this happens to some people and not others nor how much difficulty it may cause nor how long it may take to improve or, hopefully, resolve. As examples, in the past week I have talked with:
1 A college professor who completed treatment more than a year ago for ovarian cancer. She has pushed herself hard throughout her experience, continuing to teach through her difficult course of chemotherapy. She has experienced real problems with some cognitive functioning and finally underwent neuropsych testing. It was actually a relief for her to be told that yes, the issues were real, and she is now working on some strategies to better compensate and maintain her professional life.
2. A women who works in finance and has been treated for both breast and ovarian cancers over the course of ten or so years. She is physically doing fine, but found that she could not concentrate and perform at her job at the level she had always maintained. She received several warnings from her manager and has been forced to go onto Disability.
3. A woman who completed treatment for breast cancer five years ago. She lost her job just as she was planning to return to work and has not been able to find a similar position. She knows that both her physical energy and her cognitive skills, especially her previously excellent ability to multi-task, have deteriorated.
These are all extreme examples, but they are not rare. If you feel that you are experiencing similar troubles, even if it has been several years since you finished treatment, talk with your doctor. If it is possible to have neuropsych testing, it would likely be helpful. Yes, of course it will also be stressful, but it could clarify and confirm the issues you are facing and suggest strategies to better manage.
From WebMD comes this article:
How to Combat Chemo Brain
By Wendy Baer, MD
Having trouble paying attention in meetings? Trouble recalling names of people you met last week? Can’t concentrate on your paperwork or bills? No, you are not going crazy or losing your mind. These are all symptoms of chemo brain (yes, chemo brain is a real thing). Oncologists and researchers have studied the physical effects of chemotherapy on the brain and have found that there are measurable changes in the brain in patients who have had chemotherapy. Some chemotherapy agents have more of an effect than others, and not all patients experience symptoms of chemo brain.
There are some things you can do to help your brain stay as sharp as possible during cancer treatment:
1. Exercise your brain. Your brain is an organ that needs two kinds of workouts: one where you move your body, and one where you actively engage your thinking and memory skills (cognition). Exercising the body with walking, gentle yoga, dance or light weight lifting helps increase blood flow through the brain, which brings needed oxygen to brain cells. Physical exercise that increases your heart rate also helps decrease inflammation, which may slow down thinking. The second kind of exercise involves activities that make you practice focus, concentration, attention and planning — in other words, working your thinking and memory skills (cognition). Socializing with a friend or family member is one of the best ways to exercise your cognition. Other options include writing a letter, listening to an audiobook, or cooking a meal (including searching out a recipe and going grocery shopping). Sitting in front of the TV all day weakens your cognition, and makes chemo brain worse. The more you use your thinking and memory skills, the better they will work for you.