Cancer treatment side effect: Chemobrain

In the late 1990s, doctors began to pay attention to chemobrain, a term used by an increasing number of patients to describe mental symptoms and side effects. Since that time, chemobrain has become accepted as a legitimate, diagnosable condition experienced by many cancer patients. We sat down with Jeffrey Wefel, Ph.D., associate professor of Neuro-Oncology and chief of Neuropsychology, to learn more. What is chemobrain? Chemobrain is a term used by patients to describe changes in their thinking, or cognitive function. Depending on the person, “chemobrain” may refer to forgetfulness, slower thinking, difficulty concentrating or periods of mental confusion or “fogginess.” It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact definition, but it generally describes a feeling that “my brain is not working quite the same as it was before cancer.”  What causes chemobrain? When we look at cognitive changes in cancer patients, there are two distinct groups. In the first, patients with brain tumors can have changes in cognitive function due to the location of their brain tumor and treatments that directly affect brain tissue. However, “chemobrain” is often used to refer to cognitive changes experienced by patients in the other group: those without cancer in the brain. While the term “chemobrain” seems to directly blame the problem on chemotherapy, we’ve actually found that cognitive problems can appear before any treatment begins. Even if cancer is not growing in the brain, it can still disrupt systems in the body that end up affecting mental function. Some treatment, including certain forms of chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and immunotherapy, can also cause cognitive dysfunction, meaning they can directly or indirectly disrupt, damage or alter...