Program will help cancer survivors facing chemo brain

Apr. 10, 2014 @ 02:47 PM

A popular T-shirt sold within the cancer patient community reads, “I have chemo brain — what’s your excuse?”
The shirt may elicit a few smiles from passersby, but chemo brain is a legitimate affliction, and it’s no laughing matter.
“Chemo brain happens in approximately 25 to 30 percent of cancer patients,” says Dr. Barry Seltzer, an internist who works with cancer patients at Cornerstone Hematology/Oncology.
“It’s an appreciation by a patient of a loss of some cognitive abilities or memory. It can be described in many different forms — trouble recalling names, trouble recalling addresses, or trouble focusing their thoughts, especially when they’re doing sequential projects. And that can become quite problematic for someone who is trying to return to the workforce.”
Seltzer will discuss chemo brain — and how to combat its effects — during a program focused on the physical challenges cancer survivors face during and after treatment.
The program, titled “Collateral Damage: The Physical Effects of Cancer Treatments,” will be held Monday evening at Hayworth Cancer Center and will include a free dinner. Sponsored by Guide Posts of Strength, a local cancer support organization, the program will also include sessions on fatigue, neuropathy, skin care, mouth and gum issues, and lymphedema.
According to Cathy Weaver, Guide Posts of Strength’s executive director, Monday’s program is the first in a series of monthly programs targeting the expanding population of cancer survivors.
“The number of cancer survivors in the U.S. rose from 3 million in 1971 to 13.7 million in 2012, and by 2022 it’s supposed to be around 18 million,” Weaver says. “So we’ve got this enormous population of people who have survived a disease that used to kill people. With that survivorship are a lot of issues, and this series will address a lot of those issues.”
The programs will include such topics as longterm medications, the specter of a cancer recurrence, spirituality, longterm side effects, returning to work, and Monday’s program on chemo brain.
“Chemo brain is a general fogginess that affects people who have been going through chemotherapy treatments,” says Weaver, a four-year breast-cancer survivor who says she has experienced the effects of chemo brain herself. “What we’re finding out, though, is that it’s probably a combination of things going on that affect the way your brain works. So what we refer to as chemo brain actually has a lot of different reasons that you’re foggy.”
Factors such as stress, anesthesia from surgery, other medications taken during treatment, sleep problems, fatigue and depression all can contribute to chemo brain, researchers say.
Weaver recalls that following through on anything that required focus was a fragile process, akin to taking cut-up pieces of paper — each one with a word printed on it — and piecing them together to form a paragraph.
“Anything that interrupted me, it was like the wind blowing all the words off the table and scattering them on the floor, and I would have to start all over,” she explains. “That’s what it did to my brain. The words and thoughts were there, but I had to go and reconstruct everything.”
During his presentation Monday, Seltzer will discuss strategies for combating the effects of chemo brain, such as doing word searches and crossword puzzles, reading, playing a musical instrument you used to play, and aerobic exercise.
Being around others who are struggling with chemo brain will also be beneficial to cancer patients, according to Seltzer.
“Just putting them in contact with other folks who are having a similar problem can alleviate a lot of concerns,” he says. | 888-3579

Want to go?

“Collateral Damage: The Physical Effects of Cancer Treatments,” the first in a series of programs focusing on the physical side effects of cancer during and after treatment, will be presented Monday evening in the resource room at Hayworth Cancer Center, 302 Westwood Ave.
Sponsored by Guide Posts of Strength, a local cancer support organization, the program will begin with dinner at 6 p.m., followed by these presentations:
•6:30 p.m. — Dr. Barry Seltzer and Dr. Karen Pollard will discuss chemo brain, fatigue and neuropathy.
•7 p.m. — Concurrent sessions on skin care with Adrian Sledge and mouth and gum issues with Dr. Michael Puckett.
•7:30 p.m. — Concurrent sessions on ways to lessen the effects of chemo brain, led by Dr. Marissa Cangin, and lymphedema, led by Melanie Shoemaker.
•8 p.m. — Debriefing and questions.
The program is free, including dinner, but registration is required.
You can register online by going to and clicking on the “Upcoming Events” tab. You can also register by contacting Ellen Winnett at 883-4483 or