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Health beat: Minnesota therapist tackling 'chemo-brain' for cancer patients

  • Article by: Ashley Griffin
  • Star Tribune
  • July 27, 2013 - 5:19 PM

 

It’s a condition known to many cancer patients — chemo-brain.

It includes all kinds of cognitive problems that crop up after chemotherapy treatments, from poor word recall to difficulty focusing to managing even the most simple daily activities.

The condition, once largely overlooked, has been getting the attention of a local therapist.

Joette Zola, an occupational therapist at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, has been working with cancer survivors who suffer from the condition.

Now, she has been invited to make a presentation on her work this month at the first national medical conference on “Best Practices in Developing a Cancer Rehabilitation and Survivorship Program” in Boston.

It’s all part of a new area of research into therapy for cancer patients.

Unlike patients who receive detailed recovery instructions to prevent complications after heart or orthopedic surgery, many cancer patients are not too sure what to expect after chemotherapy.

Some experience what they describe as “chemo-fog.” Doctors are not sure what causes the condition, but about 20 percent of cancer patients experience it.

“You get a life-altering disease, then you go through this lifesaving treatment and now you want to go back to life, but you are not right and not sure what to do,” said Zola.

Often patients experience frustration and a sense of helplessness at not being able to complete tasks they once did with ease. But through physical therapy, and teaching patients time-management skills and how to cope with physical symptoms from cancer, Zola has seen a dramatic turnaround in her patients.

“We are not focusing on making the brain better,” she said. “We are trying to help people understand what is going on with them.”

She’s found that her patients are eager students.

“Cancer patients are taught to be survivors,” said Zola.

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