Foggy Brain (Or Fuzzy-Brain) Following Chemotherapy: Is It Real or Imagine

Previously only discussed behind closed doors; chemotherapy’s aftermath of memory problems, fatigue, anger and despair are now out in the open. While chemotherapy affects each and everyone differently, by understanding what is happening during this crucial time in your life, you can establish a sense of control. With the knowledge of the physiological and psychological effects of chemotherapy treatment, you can have more confidence in your self-perceptions and can assist in your recovery. You can call upon your inner resources (and power) during and after your treatments to help heal yourself. Rest assured that this strength is at your fingertips. So, let us explore some of the explanations for what is happening to your body that will enable you to better deal with these confounding alterations in your life and very being.

First and foremost, realize that the stress that your body is under is enormous. In response to this added stress, your body produces cortisol, which is made by small walnut-sized organs above both kidneys called the adrenal glands. Imagine that you are an athlete about to compete in an event. Your heart rate increases, your muscle tone becomes exaggerated, your pupils dilate to let in light as your brain prepares to control all these events and those to come. Well, your adrenal glands are in a race. They are overworked with the stress of worrying, fears of cancer, along with your efforts to control these fears and unknown future events. You may have gone through surgery or are about to have your cancer removed. Constant stress causes your body to be in a heightened state of tension. This heightened state of arousal (tension) exacerbates your existing feelings of discomfort and vulnerability. The extra cortisol also adversely affects insulin utilization, fat, and sugar processing. You may find that getting up in the morning is difficult. You may have no energy to lift your head off the pillow and find that fatigue sets in faster and lasts longer. The adrenal glands’ production of cortisol due to stress is eventually altered. This will further add to your state of depression and create abnormal responses within your brain.

The chemotherapy drugs that you presently take to control any remnants of your breast cancer drastically affect estrogen production. If you are not already menopausal, your body’s hormonal balance will be thrust into a rapid state of change. Normally, the onset of menopause is a measured process that allows your body to gradually adjust to the decrease in estrogen (peri-menopausal). However, breast cancer cells are often dependent upon estrogen and, thus, part of the cure is to diminish this source of supply. With the decrease in ovarian and fat production or blockage of estrogen, comes the onset of a menopause-like state. You may find that your skin has a different texture, your sexual organs are drier, your mood has changed and there are rapid oscillations in the way you feel.

Things that normally were taken in stride now become much greater events in your life, which can, in turn, lead to a state of depression. Likewise, your body naturally produces testosterone that helps to maintain muscle and bone strength and works in conjunction with estrogen for sexual arousal. Prior to this instantaneous menopause, your testosterone levels were balanced by estrogen. Now, however, unopposed testosterone may contribute to your feelings of tension and anxiety, or it can cause you to yield to aggressive tendencies that in the past were more easily suppressed.

The brain has message transmitter hormones that are also in a state of turmoil. Your life has suddenly been altered by the discovery of breast cancer. Of course, you contemplate the worst. Surgery and chemotherapy add additional insults to your body. Your sense of worth, empowerment, and control over your life and destiny have been altered by the simple words that you have cancer. The daily pressures of life, raising and caring for a family, spousal obligations, and work activities have put you in a pressure cooker mode. Pressures, which you normally take in stride, become burdensome. This only compounds your anger, episodic mood swings and anxiety or depression. Coupled with the psychological changes are the physical manifestations that may occur due to the chemotherapy and surgery. Your personal identity is now undergoing a transformation. This is not who you are or who you have been.

Added to this is the insult of memory and learning disruption; i.e., where are my keys?, did I do that errand today? This interference in memory and learning are called cognitive loss. Studies confirm that these alterations in your thinking may indeed be real. It is likely that the burden of having breast cancer and the additional strain of going through treatments compounded by your hormonal imbalance and altered cortisol levels, may contribute to the loss of memory and learning difficulties.

Not only do cognitive alterations exist and impact upon your daily activities, but they have far-reaching effects on your family members, friends and business relationships. Some of the losses in memory and cognitive thought may even last years beyond the end of your treatment. You will be undeniably disturbed by these synapse xt cognitive losses and may not know how to deal with them. This is especially true if you are told that these memory changes, physical disruptions, and social breakdowns are unique to you and not commonly shared by many women in these circumstances.

But as we know now – this is far from the truth.

We do not have all the answers, nor do we know the exact cause of these alterations. Common sense would tell us that they are attributable to many coexisting factors affecting you.

The first step towards helping yourself is to recognize that there is a problem. An honest and open discussion between you and your physicians (oncologist & surgeon) and counselor regarding your experiences and fears, needs to be brought out into the open so that you can better manage your altered lifestyle. Controlling, minimizing, or mitigating the hormonal, physical, and emotional side effects of chemotherapy is a challenge that should be embraced and understood rather than ignored or denied.

One has to realize that the art of medicine is a healing continuum that embodies learning about the disease process, formulating specific treatment options, and then redirecting these parameters to meet your personal and ever-changing needs. Treatments are far from perfect, but strides made within the past decade for curing breast cancer have been tremendous and are responsible for the continued health of countless women and men.

Treatment options are multidimensional, relying on the control of breast cancer through surgery, chemotherapy gene identification, and radiation therapy. Someday we hope to identify and isolate the genetic causes of cancer. Until such time current treatments reflect the present day state of medical research and are still the most effective that humanity has ever yet known.

The healing of the body through the mind-body connection, given the appropriate environment, is legendary. This restorative process can only occur if attended to with the awareness of the problem and the desire to help oneself. Cancer is the Gordian Knot of our era. How do we cure cancer while maintaining the stability and health of the human body?

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