Meanwhile, experts increasingly recommend exercise for people with cancer of almost any type, including breast cancer, since it typically combats certain of the more-debilitating side effects of treatment, such as fatigue and muscle loss. Perhaps even more important, in high-risk breast cancer patients, exercise is linked to significantly lower risks of recurrence and longer life spans.
But little has been known about whether being active might also alter the severity of chemo brain. Past research into moving and thinking during breast cancer treatment has been mostly small in scale or centered on physical activity during chemotherapy, when few women, understandably, manage to get much exercise.
So, for the new study, which was published in August in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Dr. Salerno and her colleagues decided to reanalyze the data from the earlier study of cognitive decline in women undergoing chemotherapy. This time, they focused on how much the women moved before and after, as well as during, their chemo, and the relationship between being active and their ability to think clearly. (The original research was designed and led by Michelle C. Janelsins, an associate professor of surgery at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y., who also was an author of the new study.)
In the original study, 580 women with a diagnosis of Stage I to Stage IIIC breast cancer, meaning malignancies that were contained in or near the breast, completed questionnaires and tests about a week before starting chemotherapy. One form asked them to recall how much time they spent recently in any physical activity, whether vacuuming, gardening, walking or more-rigorous sports like jogging. Separate questionnaires asked how they felt, right at that moment, about their ability to think and remember. Finally, several computer tests measured their visual memory, which is the vital ability to remember what something looks like, as well as their attention.
The women repeated these forms and tests during the final week of their chemotherapy and again, six months later. Separately, 363 women without breast cancer completed the same forms and tests on about the same schedule, to serve as a control.