Breast cancer survivors DO suffer more memory lapses – and chemotherapy may not be solely to blame
Mammogram: Scientists are still trying to find the underlying cause or causes to the temporary memory loss that affects many breast cancer survivors
Breast cancer survivors on average experience more memory problems after treatment compared to those who have never had the condition, scientists from Moffitt Cancer Centre in Florida have revealed.
Many women report suffering from “mental haziness” in the first few years after beating the disease, and researchers had thought that chemotherapy could be solely responsible.
Now scientists believe it may be the cancer itself that causes memory lapses, perhaps by triggering an immune system response in the brain.
A team from Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, found patients scored lower on memory tests compared against women who had never had cancer, regardless of whether or not they had had chemotherapy.
Commenting on the study, neuropsychologist Barbara Collins from Ottawa Hospital in Ontario, said: “We”re talking about a group of people that are saying, “I”m pretty much still able to function, but I find it harder… it doesn”t come as easily, and I can”t do as many things at thesame time.””
The latest study involved 129 breast cancer survivors in their fifties. About half of them had been treated with radiation and chemotherapy, while the other women only had radiation.
Six months after finishing treatment, and another three years later, women took a range of thinking and memory tests. Their scores were compared against the performance of 184 women who”d never had cancer, but were a similar age and from the same areas.
On three out of five types of memory tests, women who”d had either course of treatment performed similarly to the non-cancer group. But on two, their scores were noticeably lower.
At both six months and a few years after treatment, cancer survivors scored worse on tests of “executive functioning,” which included naming words beginning with a particular letter.
They also had lower scores for tests that measured speed and concentration.
Study leader Paul Jacobsen and colleagues wrote in the journal Cancer that there was no difference in scores between cancer survivors who had been treated with chemotherapy compared to those who had not.
This 3D X-Ray shows the three centres to a breast cancer growth
That challenges the notion that chemotherapy is the driving force behind mental changes in breast cancersurvivors, researchers said.
“Peopletalk about “chemo brain,” and there”s sort of a general view that if people have cognitive problems after the cancer treatment, it must be due to the fact that they had chemotherapy,” Jacobsen said.
“Weprovided the most definitive evidence to date to suspect it”s not just chemotherapy that is contributing to cognitive problems after breast cancer.”
Collins said the cause or causes are still up for debate but said: “There is very likely something to do with having cancer that already affects your cognitive function.
“What is it Could it be stress Could it be anxiety Could it be depression That”s a possibility.”
She added that it could also be that the immune system”s response to cancer affects the brain.
Collins said that most of the data still points to some mental effect of chemotherapy in certain patients – but that small differences between treatment groups might have been missed in this analysis.
She added that foggy thinking and memory after cancer treatment tends to improve over time, and many women don”t suffer mental fuzziness at all.