Cancer & mental fog

April 20, 2009 8:46:22 PM PDT
It's a possible side effect from chemotherapy. Many survivors say they feel as if they're in a mental fog. They forget things and have trouble multi-tasking. Not much is known this effect, but now some local researchers are looking for answers. Cancer survivor Susamma Thomas of Northeast Philadelphia said she's got her things and her mind back together as she unpacks in her new home. But this wasn't the case last year. While she was undergoing chemotherapy, she said she couldn't keep track of things.

"For example, keys most of the time. Glasses. (Sometimes I put glasses on top if my head and then I look all over for them,") she said.

And one time, she put a pot of water on the stove to boil, and she said she forgot about it and left, not returning for six hours.

"When I opened the door, I felt the burn, it felt hot all the way to the outside window," Thomas said.

Fortunately, her her home were okay, but her forgetfulness could have lead to tragedy.

That's something Eva Cruz of Port Richmond worries about. She's a mother of three, also a cancer survivor and said her mental fog has lasted well after finishing chemotherapy. She continues to miss things.

"My appointments, my kids' appointments," Cruz said.

Some experts say the random forgetfulness may be a result of stress and fatigue due to the cancer itself. Others believe it's related to chemotherapy. They call it 'chemo fog.' Either way for many patients, it can be very disruptive. For Sosamma, a nurse, it forced her to take time off from her job.

So now researchers at Temple University are studying the phenomenon, looking for answers. They've been given a $1.5 million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health.

"More and more people are surviving cancer so now we have to look as to how to have an improved post-chemotherapy life for these patients," Dr. Ellen Walker of Temple University School of Pharmacy said.

She is looking at the effects of different breast cancer drugs on mice to see how the drugs affect their ability to complete simple learning tasks. She believes 'chemo fog' may be a result of using a combination of certain drugs to kill tumors.

"Together they have an effect on a tumor but it may be they also have that as an adverse effect for cognition," she said.

The study will look to see which drugs and combinations can cause mental problems. Then researchers will look for ways to prevent or treat the problems.

For Eva, she hopes someone will find something to help her. For now she depends on her family to help.

"With my kids, if I have to buy something, I have to tell them, remind me to buy this and they'll remind me," she said.

Thomas said most of her mental fog is gone. She is back to work but says she now checks things four times instead of three just to be safe.

The researchers have already identified at least one combination of drugs that seem to have an adverse effect, but they have many more to study. And the hope is their study will eventually branch out to other types of cancer drugs.

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