Cancer treatment's insidious side effect: 'chemo brain' - FOX 35 News Orlando

Cancer treatment's insidious side effect: 'chemo brain'

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TAMPA (FOX 13) -

Most people know it as chemo brain -- the mind just isn't as sharp. It affects up to half of cancer patients who receive chemotherapy.

We don't know the cause or how to treat it, but now, some local researchers are trying to find out.

Colleen Gallagher has fought cancer twice. First breast cancer, then fallopian tube cancer that came back. She needed not one, or two -- but three rounds of chemotherapy.

"I've lost my hair three times. It's getting thinner as we speak," she says.

Along with destroying the cancer, she believes the I.V. meds did other damage, to the nerves in her hands, feet and brain.

"I start to talk, I know it's there and I can't say it. I still have fatigue. I also have problems with sleeping. I must wake up 15 million times a night," she said.

Colleen says "chemo brain" has affected her sewing, making it difficult to measure out blocks or squares for her quilts.

"So what was happening, I was buying all kinds of gadgets thinking that something is wrong. Why can't I do this? The problem was and has been the chemo brain," she says.

No one knows what causes chemo brain. Some doubt it exists. The American Cancer Society says other conditions, besides chemo, can worsen brain function during treatment. They include hormone blocking drugs, like those used in breast and ovarian cancer, low blood counts, infection, anxiety and sleep problems.

Others think as chemo kills cancer cells, the body releases toxic chemicals that may seep into the brain. Adding to that theory are MRI studies of the brain after chemotherapy. They show shrinkage in areas that may contribute to the symptoms.

"We know that chemotherapy can cause inflammation - and inflammatory cytokines do cross into the brain and cause damage," says Dr. Heather Jim, a psychologist at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. "Chemotherapy can reduce the ability of neurons to ‘talk' well to one there's a whole host of chemotherapy effects that cause chemo brain."

She's leading new research which includes puzzle solving, memory games and saliva testing to crack the chemo-brain code.

"What really fascinated me was why some people seem to kind of sail through chemo and do relatively well, and others have a really hard time. It's really interesting to me to try to figure out, can we identify those people early," she says.

Early enough so they can prevent the problem, using genetic testing, special diets (like those high in antioxidants) or drugs less damaging to the brain. Interventions that may someday help patients like Colleen.

"I'm very good at masking it, so I am very happy that they are doing research on it, because for years, I don't think people really believed it," says Colleen.

Research that may shed new light on the dimness many cancer survivors hope to overcome.

Dr. Jim says they will be recruiting for this study over the next few years. Along with cancer patients, they also want about a hundred healthy volunteers.



Study needs volunteers:

The study needs volunteers for the comparison group and is seeking women age 60 or older with no history of cancer. Participants are required to give a saliva sample and agree to meet with researchers three times over the next two years to complete a series of questionnaires and memory tests. The women will be compensated $50 for each of the three visits. Those who are interested in participating can call 813-745-8245 or email

LINK: Moffitt press release on chemo brain study


Chemo brain and blueberries:

Based on early evidence from laboratory studies, Nagi Kumar, Ph.D., R.D., F.A.D.A., and her research team hypothesize that supplementing the diet with plant-based substances from blueberries called anthocyanins and omega-3 fatty acids, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, may reverse cognitive impairment and safely improve cognitive functioning in cancer survivors.

Call 813-745-6885 or email

LINK: More on the study


Chemo Brain study:

A large meta-analysis conducted by researchers at Moffitt Cancer Center has concluded that breast cancer patients treated with chemotherapy are at risk for mild cognitive deficits after treatment.

The meta-analysis, or analytic review of previously published studies, found that study participants on average had mild impairments in verbal abilities (such as difficulty choosing words) and visuospatial abilities (such as getting lost more easily).

The study noted that cognitive functioning varies across survivors, with some reporting no impairments and others reporting more severe or pervasive deficits.

LINK: Breast cancer and chemo brain

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