“Chemo brain” is a real threat for women with breast cancer treated with chemotherapy. The medical term for this foggy chemical reaction is cognitive dysfunction. Symptoms include lapses in memory, difficulty finishing sentences and poor concentration. Some studies suggest that physical activity can help, but research on the effects of physical activity before, during and after chemotherapy are scarce.

More Exercise Relieves Chemo Brain

A new study led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis suggests that increasing physical activity to the levels recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) may help prevent cognitive decline related to chemotherapy. DHHS guidelines are a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week.

The research team analyzed physical activity levels using a self-reporting questionnaire before, right after, and six months after chemotherapy in 580 women with breast cancer. At the same time, the women were tested for cognitive functions in visual memory and attention span. They were also asked to rate their own level of cognition. As a control, 363 age-matched women without cancer answered the same physical activity questions and had the same cognitive measurements at the same time points.

Their findings are published in the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Cancer Patients Should Exercise Despite the Stress of Chemotherapy

At the start of the study, 33 percent of the cancer patients met the DHHS physical activity guidelines. Right after chemotherapy, that number dropped to 21 percent, and at six months, the number had gone up to 37 percent. Key findings also included…

  • In the control group, about 40 percent of the women met the DHHS physical activity guidelines at all the time points.
  • On all the cognitive tests, the more-active cancer patients did better than the inactive cancer patients.
  • The women without cancer performed similarly on all the cognitive testing, despite their physical activity level.

Breast cancer patients who met the physical activity levels before chemotherapy performed similarly on cognitive function testing as the control group on the memory and attention span, but they rated their own cognition lower than it actually was. The researchers think this may be due to anxiety, fatigue or depression related to cancer diagnosis and treatment, not to actual cognitive decline.

The researchers conclude that maintaining adequate physical activity before and during chemotherapy results in better cognitive function immediately after chemotherapy and at six months after completion of chemo treatment.

For more information: For resources and assistance on exercise and breast cancer, including steps to exercise safely, visit BreastCancer.org/tips/exercise.

Source: Study titled “Physical Activity Patterns and Relationships With Cognitive Function in Patients With Breast Cancer Before, During, and After Chemotherapy in a Prospective, Nationwide Study,” by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, published in Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Related Articles