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Memory loss common after cancer treatment

July 16, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Fatigue, sleep disturbances and memory problems are just a few symptoms many cancer survivors say still plague them years after treatment. The condition has been called chemo brain because it often starts during chemotherapy, but experts say it can happen after any type of treatment.Donna Trimingham runs her own business. It requires a lot of multi-tasking, but she forgets a lot of things.

"The only thing I can think of is that it is like having cotton in your head," said Trimingham.

Three years ago she underwent surgery, radiation and chemotherapy for breast cancer. Although the treatments got rid of her cancer, a common side effect stuck around: difficulty remembering.

"You don't know how many times I've had to pick up my landline and call my cell phone in the house," said Trimingham.

Memory loss following cancer treatment is commonly referred to as chemo brain.

UCLA's Dr. Patricia Ganz says it can happen to cancer patients whether they've had chemo or not. She's been studying this condition for a decade.

"We've been doing research on it for a number of years. At this point in time we'd like to do something to help women recover some of their mental sharpness and focus," said Dr. Ganz.

Dr. Ganz and her colleagues conducted a pilot to study to see if specialized rehab therapies can help cancer survivors retrain their brain.

"They did learn specific strategies that could help them cope with everyday things that were troublesome," said Dr. Ganz.

In the study, breast cancer survivors undergo five sessions, which are two hours long, where they learn strategies to improve their memory. And to gauge their progress, researchers give the cognitive testing before and after the study.

Donna says she'll probably never be her old self, but she's thrilled to have what she calls a "new normal."

"I don't know if I'll ever get back, but if I don't I'm happy here," said Trimingham.

Researchers suspect the memory, fatigue and sleep problems may be hormone related or a function of stress on the immune system. Dr. Ganz would like more cancer survivors to participate in upcoming memory rehab programs at UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center.

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