‘Chemo Brain’ In Cancer Is Preventable

By Dr. Sharon Gurm BSc, ND, Naturopathic Physician, Clinic Founder & Clinical Director

‘Chemo brain’ is an established, common phenomenon observed in medical oncology of cognitive changes (such as fatigue, forgetfulness, difficulty processing information, feeling overwhelmed, memory loss and anxiety) affecting many who undergo chemotherapy for cancer treatment. However, a new study indicates the set of symptoms that are commonly referred to as ‘chemo brain’, is present even before chemotherapy is initiated and in fact is evident shortly after a person receives their diagnosis. Researchers believe the symptoms of cognitive change are actually the result of a mental-emotional response – in other words, significant stress and worry over the diagnosis.

The following is taken from Oncology Times (posted Dec 7, 2012):

“Women awaiting chemotherapy were more worried and more fatigued than controls. Across all groups, greater fatigue was associated with poorer test performance, and more reported cognitive problems over time.”

 The NCI-funded study included 28 women treated with chemotherapy, 37 who received radiation therapy, and 32 healthy women who acted as controls. But even the healthy women were weighed down by problems of daily living, Cimprich noted — job loss, deaths of relatives, and other “vicissitudes of daily living.” Adding a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment on top of that adds to cognitive problems, she suggested.

 “Chemo brain” may thus be an inaccurate descriptor of cognitive issues, she said, adding that fatigue is a key contributor to cognitive problems and that interventions to reduce stress and fatigue may alleviate post-chemotherapy neurocognitive problems.

The results of the study, revealed at this year’s CTRC-AACR San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, are clinically significant in that it highlights the need for greater awareness that cognitive problems can arise very early on and become progressively worse throughout the course of treatment. Physicians and oncologists clinically recognizing the signs sooner allows opportunity for early intervention and recommendation for cognitive and mindfulness therapies such as mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques (i.e. guided meditation, biofeedback therapy, deep-breathing and other relaxation methods that can be taught and learned), professional counselling, exercise and other ways to combat stress.

Going a step further, there are many ways to help patients dealing with a cancer diagnosis empower themselves, thereby improving their attitude and outlook to counteract the worry and anxiety. For example, providing appropriate, evidence-based nutritional and lifestyle counselling, gives patients a way to take control in a situation where one invariable feels they have lost control.

Taken collectively, improving health on a mental-emotional level has been well established to have positive effects on survivorship, treatment outcomes and rate of recurrence. Patients receiving a cancer diagnosis should be encouraged by their physicians and oncologists to engage in a ‘holistic’ or ‘whole-person’ approach to their cancer care early on in order to reap the most benefit.

For more information on integrative cancer care offered at Port Moody Health, call (604)-949-0077.


1. A New Take On Chemo Brain. Oncology Times. Dec 7, 2012.
2. ‘Chemo Brain’ May Actually Be Worry and Fatigue, Says StudyMedscape. Dec 10, 2012.
3. Psychosocial Stress Linked to Aggressive Breast CancerMedscape. Sep 23, 2011.
4. Carlson, L.E., et al. 2004. Mindfulness-based stress reduction in relation to quality of life, mood, symptoms of stress and level of coritsol, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) and melatonin in breast and prostate cancer outpatients. Psychoneuroendocrinology 29(4):448-74.

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