From Benjamin T. Herms, M.D., medical oncologist and hematologist
October 20, 2021
Many of us have failed to place a name with a familiar face, struggled to concentrate during a long lecture, or misplaced the car keys, but for cancer patients undergoing treatment, this cognitive impairment can happen all too frequently and impact their quality of life. Post-chemotherapy cognitive impairment, or PCCI, is commonly referred to as “chemobrain” or “chemofog.” Recent study results found a strong link between physical activity and the ability to maintain cognitive functioning in breast cancer patients treated with chemotherapy.
As many as 75 percent of cancer patients receiving chemotherapy report cognitive impairment, and patients will experience chemobrain differently. They often have difficulty remembering things, finishing tasks or multi-tasking, concentrating and/or learning new things, and processing information quickly.
We don’t yet have clear evidence as to why so many patients experience this. While it is usually connected to chemotherapy, cognitive impairment can occur with other treatments. Some believe chemobrain is tied to the cancer itself and many of its resulting ailments like anemia, infection, and trouble sleeping. Hormone blocking treatments for breast cancer patients could also be the culprit. Moreover, the emotional upheaval of being diagnosed with a life-altering disease can lend itself to impaired mental processes.
At OHC, our team is committed to surrounding patients with all they need to beat cancer. While treating the disease, it is also critical to look at the patient holistically to manage other factors that impact healing, like treatment side effects and social and emotional well-being. We know that remaining physically active offers several benefits to our patients. A recent study led by Michelle C. Janelsins, PhD, of the University of Rochester Medical Center provided evidence that staying active during chemotherapy might limit the severity of chemotherapy-related cognitive issues. Specifically, breast cancer patients who met the minimum physical activity guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week) before and after chemotherapy had better cognitive function than those not meeting the guidelines.
While we still do not know exactly why exercise appears to combat the cognitive effects of chemotherapy, we do know that exercise increases blood flow to areas of the brain associated with memory. Plus, exercise offers several benefits to patients including a lower risk of cancer recurrence, more energy and mobility, bone health, and improved mood and sleep.
When incorporating a new exercise regimen into your lifestyle, discuss recommendations with your healthcare provider. At OHC, we adjust exercise schedules based on several factors including chemotherapy cycles. Recognizing that many patients are struggling with fatigue, we have these recommendations:
- Make small changes to daily habits, like taking the steps instead of the elevator or parking a little farther away in a parking lot
- Break up daily exercises into shorter 20-minute increments
- Walk around the block, garden, or vacuum
Discuss any concerns you have about chemobrain with your doctor. The following activities might offer some relief:
- Getting enough sleep
- Enjoying proper nutrition
- Stimulating your brain with puzzles and crosswords
- Following a daily routine