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Bolstering the Brain

Yoga helps lift the mental fog that often accompanies cancer treatment. By Brenda Conaway

Memory problems and mental fog, sometimes referred to as “chemo brain,” are real and consequential side effects of cancer treatment. In fact, up to 75 percent of cancer patients have some form of cognitive impairment during cancer treatment. And in 20 to 35 percent of survivors, these problems linger after treatment has ended, sometimes persisting for months or even years.

Picking a Practice​
Learn how to start doing yoga or other mind-body activities.

A study published online in Integrative Cancer Therapies in November 2015
found that a program of gentle yoga may help reduce memory problems in patients with cancer. Michelle C. Janelsins, a
clinical cancer control researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, and her colleagues studied 328 people, mostly breast cancer survivors who had received chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, hormone therapy or a combination of these treatments. Most participants reported memory difficulty and all reported sleep problems.​

​Icon © Samy Menai / The Noun Project​
Participants began the program two to 24 months after ending cancer treatment, although some were still on longer-term drugs like hormone therapy. About half received standard care while also participating in a four-week Yoga for Cancer Survivors program (YOCAS) involving 16 gentle Hatha and Restorative yoga postures, breathing exercises and meditation. They met twice a week for 75 minutes. The other half received only standard care. Participants rated their memory difficulty on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 meaning “not present,” and 10 meaning “as bad as you can imagine.” Janelsins and her colleagues reported significant improvement in survivor-reported memory in the yoga group compared with the control group.

The November study used data originally gathered to investigate the effects of yoga on sleep in 410 cancer survivors. That study, published in a September 2013 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, reported an improvement in overall sleep quality and duration and a reduction in daytime sleepiness and use of sleep medicine among study participants assigned to the yoga program. 

In the November 2015 study, researchers also looked at what effect sleep improvements had on memory. While improved sleep appeared to be responsible for part of the boost in memory, Janelsins says, “it didn’t explain all of the puzzle.” It may be that exercise itself also boosts memory and cognitive function in cancer survivors, she says, “even low to moderate types of exercise like this yoga program.” 


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