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More Americans are surviving cancer, but cancer treatments often take a toll on brain health. Chemo brain refers to a wide range of cognitive impairments affecting many cancer survivors for months or even decades. The neurological deficits may be minimal and short-term or drastic and permanent, decreasing or increasing over time. Studies suggest 75% of cancer survivors experience chemo brain during or after cancer treatment, and it lingers more than a few months for approximately 35%. Chemo brain is the topic of groundbreaking research currently underway.

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1. Background

Reports about chemo brain first appeared in the 1990s; the complaints came from people who had received high-dose chemotherapy. Women were among the first to speak out about cognitive problems and coined the term "chemo brain." Oncologists were initially skeptical about this phenomenon because they did not believe that chemotherapy treatments for non-central nervous system cancers could affect the brain. Now, studies indicate some chemotherapy medications do cross the blood-brain barrier. Thus, these drugs may be toxic to the brain or trigger inflammation. Surgery, radiation, and hormonal therapy appear to produce physiological reactions that potentially affect the brain as well.

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