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Chemotherapy ‘fog’ may linger

Chemotherapy might change the way the brain works, triggering mild forgetfulness in some cancer survivors, a study out today says.

The study of breast cancer survivors suggests the mental fog known as chemobrain might last longer than once thought and shows women treated with chemotherapy a decade ago still experience subtle memory problems.

The new findings might have implications not just for breast cancer patients but for other cancer survivors, said Ellen Coleman, associate executive director of CancerCare, a New York-based nonprofit group for cancer patients and their families. Many of the 10 million U.S. cancer survivors have received chemotherapy, she said.

Previous studies have shown cancer survivors who had symptoms of chemobrain sometimes did poorly on memory tests, but the studies did not explain why.

Daniel Silverman at the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues recruited 21 women who had surgery for breast cancer, including 16 who had been treated with chemotherapy five to 10 years earlier.

The team gave the women short-term memory tests and took pictures of the brain with a PET scanner. They found women who had the symptoms of chemobrain had changes in the way the brain’s frontal cortex functioned, Silverman said. The frontal cortex is associated with memory.

The team also found evidence the frontal cortex had to work harder to remember information on the memory test in women who had gotten chemotherapy.

There was no sign of any change in brain function in breast cancer patients who did not get chemotherapy or women who had never had cancer or chemotherapy. The findings appear in today’s online edition of “Breast Cancer Research and Treatment.”

Doctors used to prescribe chemotherapy mostly to treat breast cancer that had spread to other parts of the body, Silverman said. But now patients get chemo following surgery to lower the risk of recurrence.

Cancer patients shouldn’t forgo chemotherapy because they are afraid of developing chemobrain, cautions co-author Patricia Ganz, a UCLA cancer specialist. Not every chemo patient will experience brain fog, she said.

This small study doesn’t prove chemotherapy actually causes forgetfulness. Depression also can cause mild memory loss, Ganz said.

From 25 percent to 82 percent of breast cancer patients suffer from chemobrain, studies suggest.

Researchers have studied chemobrain mostly in breast cancer patients because they tend to live a long time after getting chemotherapy, but the brain fog might affect other cancer survivors as well, Silverman said.