Kristin Froehlich knew something was wrong with her mental abilities the moment she pulled into the parking lot of a sporting goods store last spring.
“Driving to Dick's Sporting Goods in Naperville, I pulled into the parking lot, and just sat there and started to cry as I realized I totally went to the wrong place,” said Froehlich, 46, of Bolingbrook.
She had undergone 20 weeks of chemotherapy shortly after she was diagnosed with breast cancer on Dec. 27, 2011.
The treatment helped her fight cancer, but she suffered side effects that disturbed her. Froehlich said she had trouble concentrating for any significant period of time, struggled to remember words and had numbness in her hands.
“I felt like I had the flu all the time. I couldn't hold a thought, and my mind constantly wandered,” she said.
After doing research on the Internet, Froehlich, a fiction writer, discovered she suffered from the symptoms of what chemotherapy patients call “chemo brain.”
“Chemo brain is a grass-roots term given by cancer survivors used to explain the impact upon memory, concentration, and multitasking,” said Dr. Lynne Wagner, director of the supportive oncology program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Recent scientific studies have found that chemo brain's symptoms include “mental fog, slowed-down thinking, problems with multitasking, and difficulties finding the right word,” Wagner said.
The Journal of Clinical Oncology recently published a study by researchers at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., who, after analyzing data from other studies, concluded that patients who had undergone chemotherapy for a minimum of six months have “on average, mild impairments in verbal abilities (such as difficulty choosing words) and visuospatial abilities (such as getting lost more easily).”
These findings have led doctors to warn patients undergoing chemotherapy of the possible side effects on their cognitive abilities.
Unlike Froehlich, Sharon Rand, 43, of Northbrook was given a pamphlet about these side effects when she started chemotherapy to fight breast cancer last year.
“Like a child's book, it had six chapters and, along with listing some of the physical asides of chemotherapy, e.g., dry mouth and mouth sores, also talked about chemo brain. I hadn't heard about it before, and I didn't think it would apply to me,” Rand said.
But it turned out that it did.
Rand, who works as an event services manager, said she felt the effects of chemo brain after her first chemotherapy session.
After that session, she was lying down thinking: “I need to get the mail but can't remember how to get it,” Rand said. “I was feeling completely hopeless, in a big, black hole I could not get out of.”
Rand also found she had the most trouble doing simple tasks or chores that relied upon her short-term memory.
To help jog her memory, “I literally had to write everything down so that I didn't forget or misplace things,” she said. “I started using a calendar when I never used one in the past to keep track of appointments.”
Wagner said chemotherapy patients who feel they are suffering from chemo brain should not get too down on themselves.
“It's a vicious cycle whereby negative self-talk only serves to instill additional anxiety which, in turn, increases the level of frustration,” she said.
Wagner recommends chemotherapy patients maintain a calendar and take notes on things they must do and remember.
The symptoms of chemo brain do not mean that the cancer has spread, Wagner said. These symptoms are common and usually temporary, she stressed.
Froehlich said she has recovered from the symptoms of chemo brain and returned to writing. She feels re-energized and just finished her 10th book.
“Even if I had been told my mind might not be as sharp (following chemotherapy), if I had a recurrence, I would absolutely do it again,” Froehlich said.
Rand, on the other hand, said she still feels hampered by her memory and concentration problems.
Referred by her oncologist to see a psychiatrist who specializes in working with cancer patients, she was given a brief memory test. Although she was told she did all right, he scheduled her for a six-hour memory test this month.
Despite the challenges of chemo brain, Wagner said chemotherapy is well worth undergoing to fight cancer.
Chemotherapy drugs can stop the growth of cancer cells, by killing the cells or stopping them from dividing. Usually more than one drug is given; they can be taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, depending on the type and stage of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
“I would never dissuade someone from having the chemotherapy as the benefits greatly outweigh the risks,” Wagner said.