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Researching ‘chemo brain’

For breast cancer patients, the devastating side effects ofchemotherapy are apparent, but a local doctor is embarking onpioneering research on the cognitive effects of the treatment.


For breast cancer patients, the devastating side effects of chemotherapy are apparent, but a local doctor is embarking on pioneering research on the cognitive effects of the treatment.

Dr. Barbara Collins, a neurophysiologist with the Ottawa Hospital, has received a grant from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation to research what some people call “chemo brain.”

Drawing on first-hand accounts from patients, Collins describes this condition as one in which women, post-chemotherapy, experience fuzzy-mindedness or forgetfulness. Traditionally, the medical community has regarded this as a byproduct of the mental, emotional and physical stress women undergo during treatment.

However, Collins’ research shows statistically significant results that indicate a definite difference between a women’s cognitive state before and after chemotherapy (in comparison with a control group). This would lead one to believe that the treatment itself is the cause. “It is extremely subtle ... There are some people who find this very real and very disturbing,” she says.

“There is still quite a bit of controversy,” Collins says. “(But) we’ve made some progress and there is a growing belief that they are related.”

The good news is, the effects of “chemo brain” generally clear up a year or two later.

The research will follow two groups of 60 women, half of whom are healthy and half of whom are in chemotherapy and hormone treatment. This group will be further divided in half, between women who receive only chemotherapy and those who receive additional hormone treatment. The research will include memory tests both before and after treatment. In addition, an MRI will be used to monitor brain activity.

Regardless of the results of the research, the attention devoted to this phenomenon is already helpful to breast cancer patients. “Knowledge is very important. Across the country, patients say there is tremendous relief, and understanding what’s happening is hugely therapeutic.”

 
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