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Breast Cancer, Chemotherapy and Brain Function

Article date: November 29, 2011

By Stacy Simon

Cancer survivors have long known that one of the side effects of chemotherapy seems to be a mental cloudiness that interferes with the ability to think clearly, remember details, and pay attention. There is even a nickname, “chemo brain,” that some doctors and patients use to refer to this condition.

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine conducted a study on a small group of women to find out how breast cancer and chemotherapy affect brain function. They examined 25 women with breast cancer who had received chemotherapy, 19 women with breast cancer who had not received chemotherapy, and 18 women with no breast cancer, all matched for age, educational level and menopausal status. They used MRIs to measure brain changes, and analyzed the women’s performance on tasks like sorting cards.

They found that compared to the women who had never had breast cancer, the women who had survived breast cancer in both the chemotherapy group and the non-chemotherapy group demonstrated some reduced brain functioning, and that the reduction was even worse in the group who had received chemotherapy. Those women made more errors in the tasks and took longer to complete them. Researchers also found the negative effects of chemotherapy were worse among members of the group who were older, and who had lower levels of education.

The study is published in the November 2011 issue of Archives of Neurology.

Lead researcher, Shelli R. Kesler, PhD, said the breast cancer itself probably caused some level of impairment, and that the chemotherapy definitely caused an additional and separate injury. She said the combination resulted in an actual behavorial or performance impairment.

Kesler said she wants women with breast cancer to know researchers are working on this problem and taking it seriously.

“In the past it has been kind of controversial whether it existed,” said Kesler. “This study provides validation. We are trying to zero in on the injury so we can prevent it and treat it.”

Kesler and her team have plans to conduct a much longer term study that will follow breast cancer patients along their entire treatment course.

The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer patients and survivors who notice cognitive changes speak with their doctors. Changes in brain function from cancer and chemotherapy are usually temporary. But they can cause problems at home and at work for the people who experience them. For more information, see our chemo brain document or call us at 1-800-227-2345.

Reviewed by: Members of the ACS Medical Content Staff


ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases.

Citation: Prefrontal Cortex and Executive Function Impairments in Primary Breast Cancer. Published in the November 2011 issue of Archives of Neurology (Vol. 68, No. 11). First author: Shelli R. Kesler, PhD, Stanford Cancer Center, Palo Alto, California.

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