Acknowledging Cancer-Related Cognitive Impairment May Be Best Treatment for Breast Cancer Survivors Versus Physical, Mindfulness Exercises

Published on: 

When comparing mindfulness activities with physical exercise and no exercise to treat cancer-related cognitive impairment, breast cancer survivors showed similar outcomes across the board, leading researchers to suggest acknowledging the side effect may help patients cope.

Patients with breast cancer who reported cancer-related cognitive complaints showed similar improvements in cognitive function regardless of whether they participated in mindfulness exercises, physical training or no interventions, recent study findings demonstrated.

The study, which was published in the journal Cancer, was a follow-up to a smaller-scale study that showed mindfulness interventions lead to an improvement in cognitive complaints compared with no assigned intervention.

Researchers assessed the effects of mindfulness and physical activity in 117 breast cancer survivors. In particular, 43 women were assigned to mindfulness exercises, 36 were assigned to physical training and 38 women were placed on a wait list, which involved no interventions.

Mindfulness-based interventions included group sessions, online support and a variety of exercises such as mindful yoga, body scans, focusing on one’s breath and walking meditations. In addition, physical training consisted of group sessions with endurance and resistance exercises.

Despite the results of the smaller study, data show that at the three-month follow-up improvements in cognitive complaints were reported by all patients in the study regardless of what group they were assigned to. Of note, the group who received physical training interventions reported significant cognitive improvement immediately after their exercise regimen began, though the other two groups experienced this effect later on.

Even though all three study groups reported cognitive improvements over the course of the study, participants still reported elevated cognitive complaints compared to a healthy population.

Study authors provided some explanations for the similar results across all groups.

“By recruiting participants with cognitive complaints for our intervention study, we acknowledged that (cancer-related cognitive impairment) is a common side effect of chemotherapy,” the researchers wrote. “This might have led to a reduction in cognitive complaints in the wait-list control group because it is known that acknowledging (cancer-related cognitive impairment) as a side effect of chemotherapy might help survivors cope with cognitive impairment.”

They also speculated participants may have been “goal primed” to see cognitive improvements due to the expected result that their (cancer-related cognitive impairment)would show improvement from study participation, which ultimately lead all patients to report cognitive improvements.

Although their cognitive scores were similar, patients in the mindfulness and physical activity groups did demonstrate improvements on quality-of-life issues.

“Our study confirmed that both (mindfulness) and physical training can help breast cancer survivors deal with fatigue, stress, anxiety and depressive feelings, and enhance their quality of life,” the study authors wrote. “No improvements were found within the wait-list control group over time.”

Study authors expressed their surprise that these psychological improvements did not ultimately translate into cognitive improvements. Even though these benefits were isolated to general quality of life, this demonstrates the value of implementing mental and physical exercise into a survivor’s weekly routine, even if not for cognition-related benefits.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.