Chemo Brain and work/career

Hi - I am due to start chemo in a couple of weeks and have been reading up about side effects. Now I have found one that scares me way more than the rest of them put together - and apparently this can be permanent!!

I have read that ‘chemo brain’ is basically brain damage, which in some cases means that you are no longer able to do your job. This is NOT an option for me as I am the only breadwinner in our family and I have a little boy to support. I only have a small salary as it is and was relying on further study (I am doing a part time Masters on top of working fulltime) so that I can hopefully earn more one day. I am not a ‘selfish’ career obsessed woman - I just want to give my son all the opportunities he deserves.

Do any of you out there know more or have experience of this side-effect being permanent? Like more than a few months/a year after chemo? Or not - also I would love to hear from you if you have achieved new stuff after chemo/cancer - any silver linings to all this horrible stuff?

I am trying to weigh up all the risks against the benefits, apparently chemo will only increase my 10 year prognosis by about 8%. ?

I finished chemo in late oct 2008… and definatly had chemo brain this time last year… but i do think things have got much better again… so hopefully the effects are not permanent…



Hi Gardenbeetle

Congrats on studting p/t whilst working - I’ve done it myself and I know how hard it can be.

There’s no doubt that chemotherapy seems to make it harder to think straight for any length of time, at the time. I’ve had chemotherapy more than once and the fog HAS cleared, no problems.

I’ve managed to either work (p/t) and/or study through it and frankly, it’s hard, but I believe it’s a good thing to do, as I think it has the same beneficial effect on the brain as suitable physical exercise does during treatment.

I personally found my employer, Uni and tutors to be incredibly understanding, bending over backwards to help me in the form of flexible working, extensions, deferred exams, etc. I think it’s important not to try to struggle on without alerting your employer and your Uni to the problems you MAY (and it is only a MAY - some people have very few SEs) have.

I think 8% is a very significant percentage. Why refuse something that will improve your chances of survival? (You need to think of your little boy in the long term as well as the immediate future). If you look on the thread ‘Undergoing Treatment: Refusing Tamoxifen’, you will see some very persuasive arguments for treatment in a similar vein.

My advice would be:

1 Take everything they offer you to improve chances of long-term survival. If it ever does come back, you don’t want to be wishing then you’d had something you refused.

2 Don’t worry about a problem you don’t have! BC is your problem right now, chemo-brain as a permanent SE is only a possibility, your bc is a reality. And anyway, I’m sure your little boy would rather have a Mum with chemo-brain than no Mum at all.

3 Talk to your employer and tutor. In the Uni’s case you are unlikely to be their first student in this situation and you may be pleasantly surprised at how much support they can offer.

Have also sent you a pm. Good luck with those studies!



Hi Gardenbeatle

I had 3 lots of FEC 100 (highest strength) and 3 lots of taxotere chemotherapy plus a year of herceptin. I don’t feel any different to how i did before. In fact my life is very good, I had slightly less demanding job for a year (starting last June 08) which went well with no problems whatsoever. I then fell into a new role recently which is much more demanding and again do not feel that having had chemotherapy has effected my brain. I have to really be on the ball and I am. Hope this gives you some reassurance.
Ruby x

Thanks to you all for your posts and reassurance. Does anyone know if chemo brain is more likely with oestrogen related cancers & treatments? I have heard that menopause can cause similar symptoms (though temporarily).

Mine is not oestrogen related, i am due to have AC & Taxol chemo but no hormonal drugs. But there have been experiments that prove that chemo kills braincells. But then so does alcohol! I just wonder how many of them we can ‘grow back’.

PS msmolly - so sorry to hear about the early menopause. I am scared of this too. The oncologist seemed optimistic as I am 37, but then she was optimistic about everything! I guess that’s part of her job.

I hope your symptoms are only temporary and you feel better soon, and that you find a way to work you can cope with.

GB xx

Thank you very much GB - compared to the impact of hormone therapy I felt not too bad once chemo had finished - so please try not to worry.
My early instant menopause was caused by them removing my ovaries not from having had chemo - so again, please don’t worry!
Good luck to you.

Hi Gardenbeetle,

Bahons has given some very good advice. Breast cancer can kill - it is far more important that you are here with side effects, than dead. That is the bottom line.

Having said that, chemo brain is very real, I would say I had it for two years, from chemo in 2007 till earlier this year. But I am an accountant, I worked all through my treatment, and I’m still in the same job now. I had memory difficulties, so I wrote everything down, and kept on top of my job.

What changed this year? I discovered a supplement called phyto-power by Kingsgate Health (google it; give them a ring) and it has made a huge difference to me. I no longer feel my brain is in a fog.

Best wishes with your decision.

Hi Gardenbeetle

I was dx last year aged 39. I had 3 FEC and 3 Taxotere. I found the chemo brain worst on FEC, it was like being in a fog, like I knew the rest of the world was happening but I had no connection to it.

Things have improved a bit since finishing chemo last Oct and I went back to work after Rads in Jan this year, part time at first then full time from April. Things are better than they were, but my brain is addled.

I am a barrister so really do need to be on the ball. I am not as good as I was pre-bc. I am very aware that my mental faculties are not what they were. I used to have a perfect memory but now find myself struggling to find the right word often. I have coped by writing a real lot down, this makes me a lot slower than before and is unbelievably frustrating.

I am the sole breadwinner in our family - my husband looks after our 2 girls now aged 5 and 3, so not working is out of the question. It can be hard, but there is no way I would have refused treatment - I want the best chance of seeing my girls grow up, that’s the bottom line.

Take care

Kindensurprise and RoadRunner, sorry to hear you have suffered from this SE. I’m really impressed you have both managed to keep working though, despite the difficulties. They sound like very challenging jobs where as you say, important to be ‘on the ball’.

My job is less demanding, I am a designer, mostly web which does involve some technical stuff and I’m also studying part time for an MSc which is tougher than the day-job for me as it’s more scientific. But hopefully I can still be creative - at least I hope the drugs don’t affect that side of the brain!

My experience has been similar to msmolly’s in that ongoing hormone ‘therapy’ + oopherectomy have been more problematic than any ‘chemo-brain’ I might have had.

It has been detrimental to my short term memory and it’s taken quite a bit of effort to overcome this.

I think you mentioned steroids and weight gain on another thread, gardenbeetle (which I may not find!); I realise I’m probably not typical, but I didn’t find that steroids made me put on weight through increased appetite (probably because nearly everything tasted of cardboard), altho’ I did have some fluid retention. Neither did I have problems sleeping, as a rule.

I think it’s a good idea to try not to think about SEs that you don’t yet have - and may never get. And to remember that there is lots of help available in terms of mitigating them, should they become severe.