Exercise and Cognitive Functioning During and After Breast Cancer Treatment

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

NOVEMBER 08, 2021

Every time I think that I have exhausted the information about the importance of regular mild to moderate exercise, another study appears that contradicts my assumption. If you have read more than a few of my blogs over the years, you know that I frequently have written about the benefits of physical activity. We know that it has positive effects on our physical and emotional health, and may even reduce the risk of developing some cancers or of recurrences after a diagnosis and treatment. That last statement has been very effective in motivating me to lace up the sneakers and get moving through the years.

Women who had greater moderate physical activity at each time point demonstrated better cognition than those who did not.

A study just reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that physical activity during and after breast cancer treatment reduced cognitive decline. This feels pretty important since many of us worry about our mental acuity as we age and the possible negative impact of breast cancer treatment. There has been a great deal written about chemo brain, presumably due to the effects of chemotherapy drugs, and a few studies have suggested that women who avoid chemo and are treated with endocrine or hormonal therapies may experience similar issues. The good news has consistently been that this kind of mental fogginess almost always improves as time passes after treatment has been concluded.

This nationwide, prospective cohort study (a study in which a group of people are followed over time) assessed the impact of physical activity on objectively measured cognitive functioning. Several standard tests were administered to women prior to the start of chemotherapy, immediately after the conclusion of treatment, and again six months later. Patients were matched for age, both those with breast cancer and the control group who were cancer-free.

Women who had greater moderate physical activity at each time point demonstrated better cognition than those who did not. It was noted that these benefits showed up both on the standardized tests and were self-reported. I especially am struck by the self-reports. The score on an objective test is one thing, and certainly a valuable measure for a study, but what really matters is how well each of us thinks we are doing. If we feel mentally fit, our daily lives are better than if we worry that our memory is poor, that we can’t concentrate or focus, and perhaps can’t do as well on our jobs.

In Cancer World, there are no real magic bullets. We all wish that there were treatments or strategies that were guaranteed to prevent or cure cancer. There are not. It does seem, however, that regular exercise covers a lot of bases. It is something we can control, do for ourselves, and help us maintain our weight, flexibility, and strength. It will help us sleep better, reduce the stress we experience, often reduce depression and anxiety, and may keep the cancer away. We even can pick what we do. We don’t have to run, lift weights, swim laps, or go to the gym. We can take walks, play tennis, garden, or do anything that we enjoy. Let’s get moving.

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Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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