Are you suffering from chemobrain? Are you hoping for a solution that can clear the fog that your mind is experiencing?

Jean Alvarez, cofounder of Cleveland Neurofeedback, knows your situation firsthand. After living for seven years with cognitive problems, insomnia, fatigue and mild depression, she finally found a solution that got her back to her pre-cancer self. In her own words…

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, and in treatment from February through October.   It was a challenging experience, but I’m a pretty positive person, and I had my eye on the end of treatment, when my hair would grow back, food would begin to taste good again, and my life would return to normal.

A few months after my last chemo treatment, I began to realize that things weren’t getting better—in fact I was worse in many ways:

  • After a lifetime of sleeping easily and for long hours, I had severe insomnia—taking several hours to fall asleep, and being unable to return to sleep if I woke during the night.
  • Fatigue (which I had assumed was a result of the chemotherapy) became less intense but in some ways more debilitating, since I began to feel that it would never end.
  • Cognitive problems became undeniable.  I worked as a consultant to not-for-profit organizations and started to be afraid I’d have to stop working.
    • I couldn’t remember decisions and plans
    • I couldn’t track conversations
    • I’d begin to speak, and then lose track of what I’d intended to say
    • I couldn’t handle more than one idea or task at a time
    • I lost my verbal fluency—in mid-sentence, I’d be unable to find a simple word
  • The big blast of depression that many of us experience as treatment ends had settled in as a long-term, low-grade depression.

I continued to talk with my oncologist and other physicians, who were all wonderful and supportive and tried several medications they thought might help, but there is no treatment that’s generally successful with these symptoms, and so I struggled on with no improvement.

Eventually I got clear that all of my symptoms were brain-related. Though I’m a social psychologist with no particular expertise in the brain, I was energized by having a way to think about what had happened to me and having a field I could read about in hopes of figuring out how to recover. That reading led me to two wonderful learnings:

  1. Unlike what neuroscientists used to think (as recently as the early 1990s) the brain is not “hard-wired”—it is changeable, or “plastic,” throughout the life span. This means that damage that has happened during cancer and cancer treatment ought to be correctable…if only we can find an effective intervention.
  2. EEG biofeedback (neurofeedback) is a technology that uses information about the brain’s electrical activity to activate the brain’s plasticity. With this technology, the brain is able to become aware of what it is doing…and then make changes to function more efficiently, more effectively.

My first experience with a fairly traditional neurofeedback approach, while fun and interesting, did not improve my symptoms, but did convince me that neurofeedback is a powerful technology. My next experience, with an earlier version of the NeurOptimal system, was incredible.

  • In 3 sessions, my sleep was clearly normalizing
  • In 10 sessions, the depression was gone. I heard myself laugh one day and thought, “This is joy—I haven’t felt this in seven years!”
  • With the changes in sleep and mood, my fatigue began to improve

And more slowly—but unquestionably—my cognitive function began to improve. This was much harder to recognize, because we only notice these issues when they are problems (we easily notice when we snag on a word in a sentence, but because we expect to speak fluently, we may not notice for several weeks that we haven’t snagged for all that time).

As you can imagine, I was ecstatic, and relieved to feel confident in my work again.  But I come from a family of scientists, and I found that I couldn’t be comfortable just going back to life as usual.  I wanted to know whether I was a unique, lucky person whose brain responded to neurofeedback, or whether this approach might offer a solution to the thousands of other cancer survivors facing the same problems I had struggled with.

And so I purchased my own equipment, and with some colleagues, designed a study measuring cognitive impairment, fatigue, sleep impairment and emotional distress—particularly anxiety and depression—in 23 breast cancer survivors experiencing chemobrain symptoms following treatment.  In 2013, the results were published in the journal Integrative Cancer Therapies.

A quick summary:  before neurofeedback, the participants showed serious dysfunction on all measures compared with a normal population; after 20 sessions our participants were no longer different from the normal population on any of the sleep, emotional or fatigue scales, or on three of the four cognitive scales.

We’re very excited about these results.  Other researchers are finding success with “compensatory strategies;” that is, techniques that help you function well in spite of your dysfunction. (For example, coping with memory issues by making lists, always putting your keys in the same place, etc.) To the best of our knowledge, neurofeedback is the only “restorative intervention;” that is, an approach that actually corrects what has gone wrong in the brain, restoring it to its pre-cancer level of functioning.

If Jean’s story and symptoms sound familiar, you may want to be in touch with her.  She has a special place in her heart for those with post-cancer cognitive problems. You can reach her at 216.505.0737. You can also email her using the form here. Just mention that you’re dealing with cancer-related issues and it’ll be sure to get forwarded to her.

We wish you the best of luck in dealing with this issue. We understand that you expected to return to normal once your treatment was over—and we know how terrible it is when that doesn’t happen.  In our experience, NeurOptimal can almost always facilitate that return to normal.

Further Reading

Jean posted this in 2010 on scientific understandings of chemobrain

AnneMarie Ciccarella, who has a wonderful and informative blog on chemobrain—and related topics—wrote this great post when our study was published.  AnneMarie is a national treasure—make sure you look around her blog