UW researchers aim to cure mysterious 'chemo brain' condition

SEATTLE -- Pam Wagner is incredibly grateful. After being diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer in 2011 - a diagnosis only 18 percent of women survive - she is now cancer-free. And yet, the cancer treatment that saved her life has also changed it.

Like many who survive cancer, Wagner is living with cognitive side effects. She struggles to multitask, learn new names or remember where she parked her car. The symptoms grew so severe Wagner had to leave her job as an executive assistant.

"I've always been a little bit absent-minded, but this is much more so," she said. "My intellect is intact; I just have trouble getting to it."

Researchers at the University of Washington are offering treatment to cancer survivors experiencing cognitive effects in hopes they will learn more about this mysterious condition known as "chemo brain."

Survivors have been reporting symptoms of "chemo brain" for decades, but until recently it wasn't proven to exist. With more and more people surviving cancer diagnoses, Monique Cherrier, director of the UW Memory Health Research Program, said the problem is becoming more common. She said symptoms vary, but many patients struggle to pay attention, stay on task, follow a conversation or remember names.

"Often patients try to go back to work or previous social roles and find it's more difficult than they expected," Cherrier said. "They can become anxious or worried."

Some even chose to retire early. Wagner is currently on a leave of absence from her job.

"As soon as I finished treatment I was so excited I went right back to work," Wagner said. "But I couldn't bounce between tasks like I used to. It was very odd. I could not turn off one project and pick up another. I was like a deer in the headlights. I couldn't pull my own weight."

Wagner's not alone. Since being treated for multiple myeloma two years ago, 62-year-old University Place resident Connie Claussen said her memory has suffered. She described walking into a room and not remembering why she went there or opening Google on her computer and forgetting what she intended to search for.

"I was irritated and annoyed," she said. "I wondered, 'Is this dementia?'"

Cherrier said researchers don't know what causes these symptoms, but animal studies have confirmed chemotherapy can lead to long-term cognitive effects. Still, she said a number of other cancer treatments - such as radiation or hormone blocking therapies - could also be at the root of the problem.

But, there are signs of hope for people suffering from chemo brain. Cherrier said the effects don't appear to be degenerative like with dementia. Using various therapies, such as memory games and brain exercises, she believes patients can improve their cognitive function. To learn more, she is leading a group of researchers studying the effects of cognitive therapy in cancer survivors.

Working in groups, survivors are taught a variety of tips and tricks to get them through the day. To help her remember whether she locked her car, researchers told Wagner each time she parks to say out loud "It's Thursday, I'm at the grocery store, and I locked my car," modifying the day and place, of course.

Wagner was also taught to learn a few new names every day and consciously come up with associations to help her remember. When meeting a new woman with curly hair whose last name was 'Standard,' Wagner thought about a standard poodle breed.

"People think there's nothing they can do," Cherrier said. "But when they leave the workshops they believe 'I can improve, I can change.' This is something they can continue to benefit from throughout life."

Researchers are tracking patients' progress by taking pictures of their brains before and after cognitive therapy, and they are seeing improvements.

"I still struggle with some stuff but it's slowly getting better," Wagner said.