Many breast cancer patients complain of difficulties with their ab Researchers Investigate Link Between Chemotherapy and Memory Loss (dateline July 19, 2000) | Breast Health News | Imaginis - The Women's Health & Wellness Resource Network

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Researchers Investigate Link Between Chemotherapy and Memory Loss (dateline July 19, 2000)

Many breast cancer patients complain of difficulties with their abilities to remember, think, and concentrate during and after their struggles with the disease.  Now researchers are beginning to investigate the cause of these cognitive problems, which many breast cancer patients have linked to chemotherapy, treatment with anti-cancer drugs.  In a study published in the July issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers say there does appear to be a link between chemotherapy and memory loss in some breast cancer patients.

In their study, researchers compared 31 women with breast cancer who were receiving chemotherapy to two other groups of women: 40 breast cancer patients who had finished chemotherapy approximately two years earlier, and 36 healthy women (who had never had breast cancer or chemotherapy).  The results of the study showed significantly more cognitive impairments in the 31 women who were on chemotherapy compared to the group of healthy women, regardless of mood, age, or education.

Many breast cancer patients have referred to their memory loss during and after chemotherapy as “chemo fog” or “chemo brain.”  Some describe it as a “dulling” of the mind.  In the study, women who had been off of chemotherapy for one to two years were also seen to have more problems with language and visual-motor skills than the group of healthy women. However, not all of the women on chemotherapy (or treated with chemotherapy in the past) experienced cognitive difficulties.

Though the results of the study suggest a possible link between chemotherapy and decreased cognitive function, Ian Tannock, MD, co-author of the study, says that this potential side effect should not deter breast cancer patients from considering chemotherapy.  However, patients should be aware of all possible effects of chemotherapy before treatment.  The risk of cognitive problems seen in this study does not outweigh the advantages of survival associated with chemotherapy that have been seen in many other studies, said Dr. Tannock.

Dr. Tannock also cautions that the results of the study are preliminary and need to be confirmed in larger clinical trials . Since most of the research between chemotherapy and the mind has been focused on patients with advanced breast cancer , researchers are unsure whether chemotherapy or another aspect of the disease is to blame for memory loss in some women.

While Doug Yee, MD, professor of hematology and oncology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, is interested in this possible connection between chemotherapy and memory loss, he warns that it is difficult to conclude that chemotherapy is the cause of cognitive problems in breast cancer patients.  Dr. Yee suggests that further research should investigate cognitive function in longtime breast cancer survivors.  Researchers should also compare breast cancer patients who receive chemotherapy to women who receive surgery ( lumpectomy or mastectomy) and radiation  for breast cancer. 

In addition, certain types of chemotherapy drugs may cause more severe memory problems than other drugs.  In a 1998 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers found that women who received high dose chemotherapy were more likely to experience cognitive difficulties compared with women who were given standard dose chemotherapy. 

If further research supports the link between chemotherapy and cognitive difficulties in some breast cancer patients, physicians may eventually develop means to specifically address this problem before chemotherapy begins or as soon as patients begin to show symptoms of memory loss.   

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