Those who go through chemotherapy might know the feeling well — the sensation that something is not quite right with the way their brains function.
It's called chemo brain, and it affects cancer sufferers during, and sometimes after, their courses of chemotherapy. Chemo brain sufferers might forget common words, household items such as keys, concepts and even material specific to the jobs they perform. The brain disorder is also known as "chemo fog" because sufferers can feel as if their brains are shrouded in a disorder linked to their treatment.
The University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center will host an international conference on the phenomenon Wednesday through Friday, called "Chemo Brain: Mechanisms and Assessments."
Melissa Braden, a Louisville emergency room nurse who will speak at a Wednesday afternoon session, said she didn't believe in chemo brain at first.
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"I'm embarrassed to say that years ago that if I had a patient who told me he had chemo brain, I'd say, 'Yeah, right,' ... But it is very real."
After she got cancer and began undergoing treatment, Braden feared that the cancer had spread to her brain or that she had early onset dementia. Now, she said, she lives with chemo brain.
"Things I used to be able to do without even blinking an eye, I really have to think about them long and hard," Braden said.
Her fellow nurses help her, she said: "They know that I know this stuff, but they know what I've been through. They help me find my own answer."
Chemo brain is considered emerging science. Two members of the National Academy of Sciences, James McGaugh of the University of California, Irvine and Larry Squire of the University of California, San Diego, will provide keynote presentations at the conference.
Linda Van Eldik, director of the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, said some aspects of chemo brain are similar to those seen in Alzheimer's disease.
"It's a lot like the cognitive impairments we see in our aging center," Van Eldik said, "You have trouble remembering things, concentrating, finding things, finishing tasks. ... It sounds a lot like a mild cognitive impairment."
Van Eldik is interested in comparing the levels of inflammation in the chemotherapy-affected brain with the brain affected by Alzheimer's.
Daret St. Clair, the James Graham Brown Chair in Neuroscience at UK's Markey Cancer Center, said the effects of cancer and its treatments on systems outside the cancerous area, such as the breast, can cause cancer to be considered almost a chronic disease. Side effects to chemotherapy drugs, such as heart damage, can be monitored, but cognitive changes are not widely followed.
"We would want to intervene before it happens, before this loss of function happens," she said. "The first step would be to understand how it happens and how to block it before it happens.
Van Eldik, St. Clair and Allan Butterfield, professor of chemistry and director of the Center for Membrane Sciences at UK, will give presentations.
Braden will give a patient's perspective on the condition. She suffered from chemo brain after her treatment for stage III melanoma, three surgeries, two rounds of radiation and four months of bio-chemo.
She has learned to cope with the limitations of chemo brain, she said.
"I feel like I just go one speed," she said.