Patients and survivors reach out to Cancer and Careers for information and advice on a variety of topics pertaining to balancing their employment situation and cancer treatment. One issue that comes up particularly frequently is chemo brain. Chemo brain, also referred to as “cognitive dysfunction associated with chemotherapy,” can be very disruptive to a patient or survivor who is trying to work. With symptoms that include memory lapses, difficulty concentrating, delayed thinking and problems with recall, day-to-day tasks can become challenging. In the workplace such challenges can cause major stress and frustration. And even though many patients and survivors report experiencing chemo brain, until recently it was not formally recognized as a side effect of treatment or of a diagnosis.
An article in New York Magazine highlights one woman’s experience with chemo brain, both at and outside of work. She cites a recent study, published in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior, which conducted brain scans and neuropsychology tests on 92 women; one-third had breast cancer and were awaiting the start of chemo, one-third had undergone surgery for breast cancer and were awaiting radiation only, and one-third were healthy, age-matched women who served as the control group.
The results revealed that members of the chemotherapy group showed signs of variability in neural efficiency. This kind of inconsistency in neural functioning can result in deficits in memory, attention, planning and decision-making. The study also showed that the distress of merely receiving a diagnosis can have a profound negative impact on cognitive processing; it is referred to as “pre-chemo brain.” Another finding of note showed that symptoms of chemo brain (and pre-chemo brain) can persist after treatment concludes. For example, along with the lingering fatigue associated with treatment, and the often-slow regaining of mental and physical strength, survivors can experience stress and anxiety associated with the fear of a recurrence.
The fact is, chemo brain can have a significant influence on one’s quality of life and ability to function. Thankfully, however, as it becomes more widely recognized as a legitimate side effect of both treatment and diagnosis, more steps are being taken to alleviate its symptoms. One such example is occupational therapy, which has been noted to have a positive effect on decreasing the severity of many symptoms and strengthening the mind through mental exercises.
Check out our article “Working with Chemo Brain” for useful tips on how to manage chemo brain on the job.
And for additional information and advice on controlling symptoms of chemo brain while at work, check out the recording of the webinar on Working Through Treatment session of our Balancing Work & Cancer Webinar Series, held on Wednesday, October 11th, 2017.