Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Your Mind on Chemo

Mentioning chemobrain to a group of cancer survivors is the equivalent of yelling "FIRE" in a crowded theater.

             Yesterday it was impossible to miss the collective shouting
when the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) announced the
results of a small study demonstrating the physiological process behind
the symptoms that plague so many of us.

             Now there is a scientific explanation behind that freaky
and disabling symptoms that make up the word "chemobrain." While
sometimes used derisively, sometimes jokingly, sometimes teasingly,
there is now no getting around the fact that administering chemotherapy
causes significant and demonstrable changes in brain metabolism.

            Makes sense, you think.

            And it does.  But common sense isn't science; and even those
medical professionals who listened sympathetically to their patients
had little to offer in return.  Part of the answer came in the way the
scientists approached the problem.

            Instead of studying chemotherapy's effect on the brain's
appearance, Rachael A Lagos, D.O., and colleagues at the West Virginia
Univeristy School of Medicine instead looked at its effect on brain function through an analysis of PET/CT brain imaging results utilizing special software.


             What a difference that made.  The proof was in the scans where "statistically significant decreases in regional brain metabolism" were noted.  Those changes were seen in areas associated with contentration and memory.

             Long story short:  your brain has as much difficulty processing chemotherapy drugs as the rest of your body does.

By now you all know that Robert Bazell, heath/science correspondent and author of The Making of Herceptin covered the story for NBC Nightly News and a crew came to talk with me yesterday morning about my chemobrain experience.

             My experience may have been different from yours.  Mine may
have lasted longer. You may have had sypmtoms that disappeared
overnight.  I don't know how much of the cognitive problems I
encountered can be attributed to chemo or simply the totality of
treatment --  radiation, multiple surgeries, and tamoxifen, the ultimate
in brain scrambling medications.  But I don't need a study or PET/scan
of my brain to say that definitively about Tamoxifen.  After seeing this
short and doable demonstration from a radiation resident (the RSNA
study was a poster session, mind you) from just ONE aspect of cancer
treatment is more than enough for me.

Exercise works for easing chemobrain. Truly does.

Now where we need to go is to continue the discussion on working through the disability.
That's why the crew filmed the additional segments that they did.
 Those weren't random.  Both cycling and quilting were activities I took
up AFTER treatment to help cope. There is no doubt that physical
exercise, intense aerobic activity, is one of the best possible things
you can do to cope with chemobrain, fatigue, and regain strength and
vitality.  Taking up quilting involved learning a compelte new set of
tasks, and yes, not seriously injuring myself or anyone else when using a
rotary cutter.  A third way to help anyone suffering cognitive
impairment would be assistance with organizational skills.  Anyone who
knows me and looks at my waning organizational skills can attest to
that. A good text on ADD probably woundn't hurt either.  Stress
management is also key.

Quilting is
something I took up after cancer's soemthing creative
and stress managment all in one. Here I'm using English paper piecing of
3/4" hexagons. There's no way to machine piece them accurately.

With Debbie Strauss of NBC News.

          When I watched both the broadcast and web footage last
night  I was reminded that for many of us, the cancer itself wasn't a
problem but recovering from treatment WAS.  While we were talking
I told correspondent Debbie Strauss that during those difficult months I
remember staring at a blank piece of paper trying to write a simple

           A paragraph.  Something I used to do in my sleep.  Something I
could do upside down or inside out.  No, writing a paragraph has never
been the same.  But never has the sense of accomplishment carried such a
sweet ring, either. And that will always be enough.

More where this came from:

Reserarchers Find Evidence of Chemobrain

Healing from ChemoBrain Gradual

BoingBoing: Chemobrain....Isn't All in Your Head

Great blog on chemobrain  AnneMarie Ciccarella and this recommendation: Your Brain After Chemo, by journalist Idelle Davidson.