Saturday, 23 March 2019

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Cognitive Enhancement

Forgetful? Can’t follow conversations? Forget names, or, words in the middle of sentences? Get the day wrong? Lose your train of thought? Can’t concentrate? 

Yes. Oh yes! 

These lapses are all too familiar to those of us diagnosed with cancer - it’s as if a brain fog descends and we need the grey cloud that is ‘chemo-brain’ to lift. 

We’ve talked many times about the phenomenon of “chemo brain”. However, this week our discussion focused on “cognitive enhancement” i.e what we can do to help manage the effects of ‘chemo-brain’ following a breast cancer diagnosis.

We know from our previous discussions that the reasons for impaired cognitive functioning are complex but can be linked to two factors: the effects of aggressive treatments for breast cancer AND the emotional trauma of the diagnosis itself - because the stress and anxiety associated with a cancer diagnosis has a similar effect to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on the brain.(If we can hold in mind the significant emotional and psychological impact on the brain it can help to explain why people who have not had chemotherapy also experience chemo-brain.)

Some of us wondered whether our difficulties related to menopause, or menopause-like symptoms?

Naz explained that treatments such as tamoxifen and letrozole strip our bodies of oestrogen. Oestrogen is fuel for brain function and is a vital hormone enabling the binding of information synthesis, and it affects white matter integrity.  

Some of us wondered whether our experience of cognitive decline followed a similar path to the natural process of ageing? 

Naz told us that the brain is affected in a way that is similar to ageing, but the effects are far more dramatic - brain matter integrity is compromised and structure is reduced, causing a disruption in communication across those structures. 

We wondered if there were any supplements we could take for cognitive enhancement, and a supplement for ADHD was mentioned.

Naz explained that breast cancer diagnosis and treatment affect our brain in ways that are rather different to how the brain is affected in ADHD, despite some similarities. Also, a wider network is affected and the trajectory of the effects are different. 

Our members, who are women with primary and secondary breast cancer diagnoses, described a variety of memory and cognitive function failures, leading to a reduction in self-esteem and self-perception. This can have a significant detrimental effect on everyday life as we struggle in our work and our relationships. 

Naz told us that the good news is that cognitive function can be enhanced and the brain’s plasticity means that new neural pathways can be built and existing ones strengthened. Cognitive function can be improved through regular practice of targetted exercises, and continuing to learn new things and keep our brains challenged and active is key. 

Alongside this, self-care is so important, so that we don't become emotionally embroiled in feeling less competent than prior to diagnosis. 

Some of us had continued to work during treatment. We wondered if that helped us to stay sharp and to suffer fewer cognitive difficulties? 

Naz told us that while working has benefits for some - and indeed maybe a necessity - we do not know how working during, or indeed not working during treatment, affects our longer term cognitive efficiency. She reminded us that trying to get our brains to work harder when they may already be struggling to cope may not be a good thing. 

Some of us shared that we practice brain training and that we had found learning new skills could be helpful for focus. Activities that encourage us to co-ordinate brain and body may be particularly useful, perhaps playing a musical instrument or dancing. Likewise, creative, absorbing activities are also helpful for some. Mindfulness can also be a calming activity that can help in grounding us and facilitating focus.

Some of us wondered if we have simply become used to our new foggy state, perhaps it has become part of our ‘new normal’, part of the adjustment we’ve had to make post diagnosis. 

Many of us write lists and use reminders to help us get through everyday tasks.

Practising good self-care, being our own best friend, being kind to ourselves, can make a big difference to everyday wellbeing. 

Some of us practice brain training games - there are many apps readily available - but some of us find them difficult, and not being able to master them as perhaps we used to can mean they become counter-productive as we feel a failure. However, the research carried out by Naz and her team is showing evidence that cognitive training can reduce vulnerability in breast cancer. 

Naz told us that it’s important to persevere with ongoing learning activities and challenges that push us out of our comfort zone. 

This photo is part of a project led by group member Diane to represent how ‘brain fog’ feels. To find out more about her work please visit her facebook page Hands 4 Wellbeing: 

If you are a woman living in the UK with a breast cancer diagnosis and you would like to join our private group please send us a private message via Facebook. 

No comments: