Managing Stress & Memory Lapses After Breast Cancer Diagnosis

By Denise Reynolds, RD for

Although up to 75% of cancer survivors experience altered mental function following treatment – often called “chemo brain” or “chemo fog,” doctors often believed that these effects were psychological, a form of depression. However, a new study, published in the Archives of Neurology, has Stanford Cancer Center researchers providing biological evidence that the effects are real, particularly for women who have undergone chemotherapy.

Cancer patients who complain of loss of mental sharpness are actually complaining about loss of prefrontal-executive function, the type of mental activity that includes the ability to selectively pay attention, work with information, and choose the appropriate response in a situation.

Shelli R. Kesler and colleagues scanned the prefrontal cortex of the brains of 25 breast cancer patients who had been treated with chemo, 19 breast cancer patients who had not had chemotherapy, and 18 healthy women. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while the women completed a brainteaser in which they tried to discern a pattern in a series of cards printed with geometric shapes. This test measures cognitive flexibility, or the ability to identify the best solution to a problem by testing several possibilities. The women also completed questionnaires to assess their own cognitive abilities.

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