‘Chemo-Brain’ Can Last 6 Months for Breast Cancer Patients


“Chemo-brain” can be a persistent problem for chemotherapy patients after treatment, according to a recent study.

Woman receiving radiation treatment. Courtesy: Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

In a study by researchers at the University of Rochester, women with breast cancer reported that chemo-brain was a substantial problem for as long as six months after treatment. Lead author Michelle Janelsins, assistant professor of Surgery in UR Medicine’s Wilmot Cancer Institute Cancer Control and Survivorship program, said the study highlights one specific group.

“Our study, from one of the largest nationwide studies to date, shows that cancer-related cognitive problems are a substantial and pervasive issue for many women with breast cancer,” she said in a press release.

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Scientists have known that cancer-related cognitive impairment has been a concern for patients. The impairments include issues with memory, attention and processing information.

For the study, researchers compared cognitive difficulties among 581 breast cancer patients and 364 healthy individuals, with an average age of 53-years-old for each group. The study used a tool known as a FACT-Cog, a validated measurement of cognitive impairment that examines a person’s own perceived impairment as well as cognitive impairment perceived by others.

By using the FACT-Cog, the scientists hoped to discover whether persistent symptoms existed and to possibly correlate them with other factors like age, education and race. Researchers found that compared to the healthy individuals, the FACT-Cog scores of women with breast cancer showed 45 percent more impairment.

Over a period of almost a year, from diagnosis to post-chemotherapy follow-ups, 36.5 percent of women reported a decline in scores compared to 13.6 percent of healthy women. Factors that led to a greater impact on the FACT-Cog score included anxiety, depressive symptoms and younger age.

The study said black women were more likely to have a higher FACT-Cog score as well. The study also indicated that women who received hormone therapy and/or radiation treatment after chemotherapy had similar cognitive problems to women who received chemotherapy alone.

“It is possible that these factors are most important in determining the overall impact of cognitive impairment on quality of life as well as how others, for example, caregivers, view the patient’s cognitive function,” the study said.

The researchers said the study’s limitations included that the long-term impact of chemo-brain assessed by FACT-Cog isn’t known. A small group of patients are still being studied for its effects two years post-treatment.

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More research is needed to address the effects of anxiety, depression and other factors within the FACT-Cog assessment, the study said. The researchers also recommended studies that fully evaluate chemo-brain for younger patients with cancer as well as patients who belong to minority populations.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, is the largest study to date to assess perceived chemo-brain. Janelsins said the data is being reviewed to understand what it means for chemotherapy patients.

“We are currently assessing these data in the context of objective cognitive measures and to understand the role of possible biologic mechanisms that may confer risk to cognitive problems in patients,” she said.