Regular Exercise May Help Guard Breast Cancer Patients From Chemo Brain

Among the many frustrating side effects of breast cancer treatment is chemo brain. Experienced by many patients, this is a mental fuzziness that can give you memory lapses and make it difficult to do everyday tasks, learn new things, or even socialize. A new study finds that staying physically active may be a good way to keep this issue at bay.

Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center and Washington University in St. Louis compared the exercise habits of breast cancer patients with their cognitive function. They found that for women who were regular exercisers before treatment, chemo brain was less apt to be a problem. The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

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Dr. Michelle Janelsins, senior author and associate professor of surgery at URMC, says, “We’ve always believed that exercise is a great way to help cancer patients. But now we have evidence that meeting physical activity guidelines prior to getting chemotherapy has benefits. It puts you in fighting shape and appears to offer some protection against things such as memory difficulties or the inability to pay attention, which are common concerns for those undergoing chemotherapy.”

To determine the impact of exercise on chemo-related cognitive issues, the researchers looked at data from a study Janelsins had done in the past involving 580 breast cancer patients and 363 healthy people. They focused on patients’ self-reported exercise levels before, during, and after treatment, and they compared this information with the patients’ cognitive function at each of these times.

The data showed that before beginning their treatment, about a third of the patients had already been meeting exercise guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This group went on to do as well on memory and cognitive tests during treatment as the healthy control group.

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Researchers say that though this study was observational, and so it can’t be definitively said that exercise is a sure fire way to prevent chemo brain, their findings do back other studies about the benefits of exercise for cancer patients.

Dr. Elizabeth Salerno, first author and assistant professor of Surgery in the Division of Health Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, explains, “Our findings contribute to the growing body of evidence highlighting the importance of physical activity as early as possible across the continuum of cancer care.”

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Dr. Janelsins has been studying the topic of chemo brain for years, finding in 2018 that breast cancer patients scored worse on cognitive tests than healthy people for up to six months after they’d finished treatment. She also found in a recent clinical trial that exercise can help patients maintain their ability to concentrate throughout their time in treatment.

If you’re experiencing chemo brain and would like to figure out what else may help, here are some more tips.

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