Chemo Brain has been the term used for years to define cognitive and mental dysfunction in those who have had chemotherapy treatments to kill cancer cells. It is now known that patients with different type cancers, many whom have never had chemotherapy, are experiencing this oftentimes debilitating condition, hence the new terminology.
I first heard the term this past summer during a Twitter chat. It was used by an oncologist I respect and I'll admit, at first I didn't like it. I'm not sure why, except that maybe it's because the name is too similar to brain cancer. Because I'm a writer, that bugged me a little. It did, that is, up until the breast cancer summit held recently in San Antonio. After hearing the experts talk about the subject, I changed my mind.
Understanding This Malady
I became very interested in what they were saying because it made so much sense, both in physical terms and psychological terms. Personally, since the beginning of this year I have experienced an odd mental fatigue like no other time in my life. I've had constant physical fatigue for years due to the lymphedema, but for the most part my mind has stayed alert and functioning- until now. Working my puzzles and reading the paper has been a struggle. I haven't been able to concentrate long enough to work the puzzle or recall what I had just read. I've also left on lights in the house, and left my small dog on the screened front porch until he would bark me back to my senses. Thankfully he was not a small child! It has certainly been a strange and worrisome phenomenon, and I'm getting a very small taste of what true chemobrain must be like.
For years after my most extensive surgery I was constantly in and out of hospital with emergency-type side effects. On most every visit I was given x-rays, MRIs, CT scans, and IV antibiotics (in other words, infused chemicals and nuclear medicine in my veins) just to name a few.
Experts Discuss Cancer and the Brain
The expert panelists at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Summit discussed both chemobrain and Cancer- brain. (I was not there, I only saw various live tweets from attendees). The experts did in no way diminish the effects of chemotherapy- it is devastating. Because breast cancer is often treated aggressively with chemotherapy, many of those patients complain of diminished ability to concentrate or remember to do simple routined tasks at home and at work, so for years the effects of mental dysfunction in cancer was largely kept within the confines of those who only had chemo. The breast cancer community (unfortunately) is huge and chemobrain is heavily documented, thanks to the patient advocates.
Brain Dysfunction Common
However, from the information I saw, the malady of brain malfunction hits all cancer patients who experience chemo or not, no matter age or gender. It affects all areas of a person's life and disrupts work, family and interpersonal relationships thereby leaving a patient with a lower quality of life overall.
Cancer-brain Makes Sense
What impressed me the most regarding the new term Cancer- brain was this:The panelists of experts at the summit said that the brain is actually affected from the moment a person gets the news they have cancer. Upon hearing the news, a person begins to produce negative stress-induced hormones, sometimes at high levels depending on the diagnosis. From that point on, a person has to make life-changing decisions on top of fear and uncertainty. This is all before the surgery ever even takes place. The intravenous drugs given at surgery (anesthesia, painkillers, muscle relaxers, antibiotics) take months to seep out of a person's system, and usually there is a residual amount that never leaves. This would cause anyone not to be able to think clearly, act normal or remember routine things. And most cancer patients have multiple surgeries, increasing the build-up of drugs in the system, causing the cycle to continue.
Cancer-brain makes sense, and loved ones of cancer patients should have a better understanding of the person who is going through the cancer experience. Sometimes they will be a little "off". However, after thinking this over, those who have chemotherapy get hit twice. An analogy that might help is: think of a lot of small destructive wars over time measured next to an atomic bomb. For that reason, I'm not going to shelve the term chemobrain. Maybe we should keep and use both terms. Besides, the term chemobrain has been around for a long time, and is too well-known to just force it out of the neighborhood.
It may take a while, maybe years for cancer-brain to catch on as a wholly accepted new term, but I do believe it will affirm many a cancer patient's feelings regarding their plight with brain dysfunction. None of us can get better without being fully understood, and I appreciate every effort by all who are working in healthcare to that end.