Memory palace: coping with chemo brain

FRESNO, Calif.

"I just felt like my mind was muddled," said Deborah Binder, cancer survivor.

"I'd ask my husband for the milk when I was meaning to ask for a banana," said Janet Freeman-Daily, cancer survivor.

These cancer survivors are living with chemo brain.

"It generally refers to people who have some kind of cognitive difficulty following cancer treatment," said Monique Cherrier, PhD, Research Associate Professor, Neuropsychologist, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, Wash.

Chemo brain affects anywhere from 14 to 85 percent of cancer patients, but it's not just the chemo that causes problems. Radiation, hormone therapy, and surgery are also to blame.

Now, researchers are studying whether cognitive rehabilitation can help. Patients attended group sessions for seven weeks and learned proven memory strategies.

"We're actually seeing some nice activation pattern changes in the brain," Dr. Cherrier said.

After cognitive rehab, researchers can see the pattern of brain activation, suggesting they processed information more efficiently.

One of Janet's favorite memory exercises is the "memory palace." You picture a room in your house and visually put something you want to remember by an object in that room.

"When I want to recall it, I just go back up and walk through the house and that image is there in the entry, and it reminds me of what it is that I'm trying to remember," Janet explained.

Deborah says learning to group together information -- like numbers -- helped her.

"I feel like it is getting better, but I don't feel like I'm where I was before I was diagnosed," Deborah said.

Other factors like lack of sleep, stress, and depression may also play a role in cognitive functioning and may also impact patients with cancer related cognitive dysfunction.

A study in 2012 looked at women after breast cancer surgery before any treatment was given. About one-in-four showed problems with word skills and about one-in-seven had memory issues. The women who reported worse brain problems also reported higher stress levels.


Diana David
Research Assistant
UW Memory Health Research Program
(206) 667-7930

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