Chemobrain Is Real—Turns Out, It Changes Your DNA

This is what researchers at UCLA found about the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.

It has been known for years that chemotherapy and radiation can affect mental ability. But now, new research from UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center is providing some answers as to why that happens.

Many cancer survivors report an effect called “chemobrain,” which is difficulty with the cognitive ability of mentally processing or understanding things after chemotherapy and other cancer treatments.

The study used neuropsychological tests, which scientifically look at how well one’s brain is working, as well as self-reported data and information from 94 participants to measure mental function. Each of the women had been treated for breast cancer with chemotherapy or radiation for three-to-six years.

The results showed that these cancer treatments may damage the DNA within healthy cells in your body as well as damaging the cancer cells they are meant to fight, which can affect mental abilities afterwards. The researchers believe the result of this damage has an actual impact on the aging process.

Lead researcher Dr. Patricia Ganz told the UCLA Daily Bruin that these treatments may be speeding up effects of aging that would happen naturally, but otherwise at a slower pace. “All these associations are also common in people as they get older, and we think that cancer treatments may be accelerating the aging process and be leading to some of the cognitive difficulties also seen in normal aging,” she said.


Dr. Judith Carroll, another researcher on the study at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, tells SurvivorNet the reason for this impact on cognitive function is not understood. She also notes there are not yet treatments for these side effects but hopes that “future interventions that target the reversal of biological aging…might one day be applied in the context of cancer survivors, including treatments for the prevention of cognitive decline.”

Dr. Ganz adds to SurvivorNet that these types of side effects are imperative to consider when making a decision about the benefits of aggressive treatments versus the risks. “If radiation or chemotherapy are going to add little to the survival outcome for a patient, their use should be carefully evaluated due to the potential long term effects.”

This side effect of these types of cancer drugs is of course not the only one survivors can expect during and after treatment. Finding a “new normal,” both mentally and physically can be difficult no matter what your specific course of treatment was. Be sure to discuss all possibilities with your doctor before beginning on any treatment regimen.

Learn more about SurvivorNet's rigorous medical review process.