When patients get breast cancer and have to undergo chemotherapy, the devastating effects of chemo brain are usually not one of their first concerns. But perhaps this topic should be a little higher on the list of things to care about, because the symptoms often stick with patients for the rest of their lives.
Chemo brain is the common way to refer to an impairment of memory, learning, concentration, or other cognitive abilities that has been known to happen to people who undergo chemotherapy treatment for cancer. As many as 60 percent of women with breast cancer who have had chemotherapy treatment have experienced chemo brain, and for some of them, the effects take a long time to go away or never disappear at all.
Karen Foster is one such survivor. For her, the symptoms of chemo brain have decreased over time but never entirely left, even 10 years after her diagnosis and treatment.
“I get two-thirds of the way through what I want to say and suddenly the next word just won’t come or the next thought won’t come, and it’s disconcerting,” she says.
Researchers have found that chemotherapy itself may not be what causes chemo brain, or it may just be one part of the cause of the condition. Cancerous cells themselves can also cause cognitive impairment by releasing biomarkers that cause inflammation in the brain.
Luckily, experts now believe aspirin may hold the key to preventing and treating chemo brain, and some people think it might be able to reverse the long-term cognitive side effects of chemotherapy as well.
Researchers at the National Breast Cancer Foundation conducted a study involving mice and found that the mice with cancer showed impaired cognitive skills when undergoing chemotherapy, but not if they were also being treated with aspirin, an anti-inflammatory medication.
“It was very exciting to see that with aspirin we were able to completely prevent and block memory impairment occurring,” says Dr. Adam Walker of Neuroscience Research Australia.
Dr. Walker’s team will next look into whether aspirin may also reverse negative side effects that patients have had for months or years. They also hope that the treatment will be helpful to those with different types of cancers.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?