A course to help people overcome long term ‘chemo brain’ is being rolled out across the UK after Glasgow Caledonian University research found it to be successful with cancer patients in Scotland.

It is now to be introduced in 16 Maggie’s centres across England and Wales after being shown to be effective in Scotland in a research study conducted by Andrea Joyce, Trainee Health Psychologist at the University.

‘Chemo brain’ – or Cancer Related Cognitive Change (CRCC) – is experienced by some people who have had cancer treatment, particularly chemotherapy but not solely, manifesting as issues with memory, attention, executive function (e.g. planning, organising), and the speed at which people process information.

For some people this ends after treatment, but for others this can be a continuing problem which stops them moving forward with their lives.

Andrea discovered those who had taken the course in a Maggie’s centre found it helpful in dealing with symptoms of ‘chemo-fog’, while coming together in a group at Maggie’s helped lessen feelings of isolation.

Andrea, who is a stage three trainee on the Department of Psychology’s DPsych programme, said: “In a nutshell, everyone I spoke to found the group helpful.

“They found that the knowledge provided and group format, where they could share with others experiencing similar things, addressed feelings of isolation post-treatment.

“They also highlighted that CRCC impacted their sense of identity, particularly in the workplace, as some people could not return to their previous (sometimes high-level) role.

“The Cognitive Rehabilitation Interventions (CRIs) mitigated this as it gave them a sense of empowerment.  Finally, things like coping strategies helped them to develop a cognitive and physical balance and accept that things have changed.”

Maggie’s Lead Psychologist, Lesley Howells, said: “‘Chemo brain’ – which can impact people who have never had chemo but had other cancer treatments- can be really debilitating.  It can mean even simple everyday tasks such as reading a book can become difficult.

“We have seen how powerful these courses can be in helping people overcome these issues and are delighted to be rolling this course out across the UK to help as many people as possible living with memory and brain function issues caused by cancer treatment.”

Memory and Concentration Changes after Cancer Treatment (MCCCT) has been used in the eight Scottish Maggie’s centres since 2019 after being developed by psychologists in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde in partnership with Macmillan, Maggie’s, NHS Scotland, and NHS Education for Scotland (NES) as part of the Transforming Care After Treatment programme in 2016/2017.

Dellasie, 31, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019.  Three years on, following treatment, Dellasie still suffers from fatigue and neuropathy and ‘chemo brain’.

She said: “‘Chemo brain’ is still something that affects me. In the last year there have been a few incidents where I have left the oven on and came back to find my house smelling of smoke. Sometimes when I’ve been asked a question, a few seconds later, I’ve forgotten what it is. I wasn’t like this before and it’s frustrating. I sometimes wish I could have my old self back, but I realise that probably won’t happen.”

Since Maggie’s opened its first centre in 1996, the charity has developed a programme of support that is proven to help people with cancer, as well as family and friends, take back control.

Andrea’s research paper entitled Exploring the experience of a cognitive rehabilitation intervention for cancer-related cognitive change in people living with cancer: An interpretative phenomenological analysis, was published in the Cambridge University Press. Other authors include Glasgow Caledonian’s Dr Kareena McAloney-Kocaman and Dr Lindsey Burns, now at Heriot Watt.

Photo of Maggie’s visitors chatting around a table was taken by Phillip Durrant.