three women wearing pink are walking to combat chemo brain


Combat 'chemo brain' with exercise

  • Exercise is important for breast cancer survivors. Regular exercise can reduce your risk of cancer coming back by 30 percent.
  • Besides not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight is the most important thing you can do to reduce your cancer risk.

What is chemo brain?

Up to 75 percent of people being treated for cancer experience difficulty with memory, thinking, attention and concentration. This mental fog is called chemo brain. It is not just related to chemotherapy. It can occur in people undergoing any type of cancer treatment, as well as those who are not receiving active treatment. Chemo brain may be related to stress, anxiety and depression that are common symptoms that come with a cancer diagnosis. For most people, chemo brain is annoying, but temporary; for some, chemo brain can persist long after treatment and interfere with your daily life.   

How can I manage chemo brain?

One way to manage your energy and fight through chemo brain is with exercise. Exercise has been shown to combat your fatigue, improve your mood, reduce your anxiety and depression, and improve your overall physical well-being. Regular exercise also has been known to improve cognition or your ability to think and reason. One explanation is that the increased blood flow to your brain from exercise stimulates your nerve cells and pathways, thus improving your thinking.

Several research studies, from the University of Illinois; Digital Artefacts in Iowa City, Iowa; and Northeastern University in Boston; looked at more than 300 breast cancer survivors and measured the effects of daily activity on chemo brain. They found that people who exercised more had less fatigue and scored better on cognitive tests. And, the more people exercised, the better their results.

The prescription, then, for cancer patients is the same as for everyone: you should participate in moderate exercise for 150 to 300 minutes a week. Consider though, that what's moderate for you may be too strenuous or too light for others.

How can you tell if you're exercising at the correct level?

Try the talk test to determine if your exercise level is moderate. You should be able to talk and hold a conversation while exercising, but you shouldn't be able to sing a song.

Some cancer patients may need to start more slowly. If exercise was not routine for you before your diagnosis, build up your activity level over time. Research has shown even brief, 10-minute bouts of physical activity are beneficial.

So, if you are undergoing cancer treatment, consider adding exercise to your daily routine, even if you are feeling tired or foggy. Be sure to talk with your health care provider before making any change to your exercise routine. You may want to ask your doctor or provider for a referral to an occupational or physical therapist, such as the experts at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, who can help you develop an exercise routine to better manage chemo brain symptoms.


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Get motivated: Tips from a health coach

Finding the motivation to make fitness a part of your daily routine can be difficult. Just realize that your goals will evolve over time, as will your behavior. Keep going through the process of setting small actionable goals, rewarding your successes and staying positive. And, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

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