The American Cancer Society estimates 20 to 30 percent of people getting chemotherapy will experience some degree of chemobrain. Studies have found the condition affects up to half of all women having chemotherapy for breast cancer. Risk appears to be greatest among those taking high doses of anti-cancer drugs. In most cases, the symptoms are subtle. But mild cognitive impairment can be frustrating for the patient, leading to increased stress, anxiety and depression. The cause of chemobrain is unknown. However, information gained from brain images shows many patients have a smaller brain size in the areas of the brain responsible for memory, thought and behavior.
Health experts offer several ways for patients to deal with the problem: Carry a planner and small notepad. Use the planner as a "to-do" list and to keep track of appointments, important telephone numbers or e-mail addresses and family activities and events (like birthdays, etc.). Leave notes around the house or in the car to remind you of anything you need to remember. Develop a routine. If you follow the same routine daily, it is easier to stay on task. Focus on one project at a time. Take care of your body. Eat a healthy diet and get plenty of rest. Take short naps if necessary. Develop a workable exercise routine. Even a short walk can help you feel better, physically and mentally. Relaxation exercises can decrease stress. Brain exercises, like crossword puzzles, may improve brain fitness.
Get help. Don't be afraid to acknowledge your problem. Take a friend or family member to doctor appointments to help you remember to ask questions or understand information or instructions you are given. Family members and friends may also be willing to help you do some of the tasks that are more challenging or seem overwhelming. Researchers are looking for better ways to help patients cope with chemobrain.
One treatment under study is PROVIGIL® (modafinil), a drug currently approved for patients with narcolepsy and other sleep/wakefulness problems. The drug works by increasing alertness in people who are prone to sleepiness. Doctors at the University of Rochester recently completed a study of PROVIGIL in a small group of female breast cancer patients who were experiencing cognitive problems. After four weeks, patients reported an improvement in recall/memory. After eight weeks, concentration ability also improved. Sadhna Kohli, Ph.D., M.P.H., Research Assistant Professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, says the women also reported a decrease in fatigue. Side effects of the treatment were mild. Kohli says larger studies are needed to confirm the benefits of PROVIGIL for patients suffering from chemobrain.