March 24, 2006

Exercise’s chemo benefits studied

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Charles Matthews, Ph.D., is studying whether regular exercise can help alleviate the cognitive impairment experienced by many people following chemotherapy.
Photo by Dana Johnson

Exercise’s chemo benefits studied

Researchers at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center are studying whether exercise can help curb memory and cognitive problems experienced by many cancer survivors following chemotherapy.

Charles Matthews, Ph.D., Laurel Brown, Ph.D., and a team of researchers at Vanderbilt-Ingram are taking a closer look at the chemotherapy side effect commonly referred to as “chemo brain” or “chemo fog” to determine whether starting an exercise program can help patients experiencing these problems. The study is being done with the help of funding from the foundation established by well-known cancer survivor and athlete, Lance Armstrong.

“A substantial number of cancer survivors who receive chemotherapy report mild to moderate cognitive impairment that persists following treatment. These impairments have been reported across a range of cancer types and chemotherapy agents,” said Brown.

It's something Robert Carver Bone, M.D., a surgeon and physician who has been in general practice in Lebanon, Tenn., since 1964 and is on the clinical faculty at Vanderbilt, never dreamed he'd have to deal with as a patient himself.

Bone was diagnosed with stage four squamous cell carcinoma of his right tonsil that metastasized to his neck in 2001. He beat the cancer with chemotherapy once a week for three weeks and radiation for seven weeks, but he's still dealing with lingering problems that affect his daily life.

“I had problems with walking after chemotherapy. I had trouble finding my way in the dark, and for a while I had problems with my hands,” said Bone. “I do think I have some short-term memory loss. I'm 69; I thought it was just my age,” he added.

Bone has been undergoing regular occupational and physical therapy at Vanderbilt to help him overcome the problems and get back to practicing medicine full-time and helping other patients.

“I feel very good. Every day I feel stronger and stronger. I'm doing everything I know to help with it,” he said. He's now considering enrolling in the study being conducted by Matthews and Brown.

Participants in the study will be asked to make three visits to VUMC over six months, and will be placed into either a walking exercise group or a control group.

Study members in the exercise group will receive a personalized walking program that they can do at home, counseling to help them reach their exercise goals and techniques to help with memory problems.

Those enrolled in the control group will immediately receive counseling and techniques to help with memory problems, but will only be given the exercise program at the end of the six-month study period.

All participants will be asked to complete questionnaires assessing memory and cognitive function, physical activity and fitness, and to provide urine and blood samples. Anyone aged 18 and older who has received chemotherapy in the last five years, experienced persistent memory or cognitive problems since chemotherapy, does not already exercise regularly, and has no history of brain cancer, heart disease, or a serious medical condition that could be worsened by exercise, is eligible for the study.

Matthews said exercise at levels most adults can perform, such as brisk walking for 30 to 45 minutes, four to five days a week, has been shown to improve cognitive function in older adults.

“A wealth of research now indicates that exercise participation preserves cognition function as we age,” said Matthews. “In addition, sedentary older adults without cancer that completed six months of exercise have been shown to improve their cognitive function. We want to see if exercise might help cancer survivors in the same way.”

Researchers said this exercise intervention study is the first of its kind for cancer survivors.

“To our knowledge this study would be the first to examine the influence of regular exercise on cancer survivors who experienced cognitive difficulties following chemotherapy,” said Matthews.

Vanderbilt was one of 21 institutions across the country and in Rome, Italy, to receive cancer survivorship and testicular cancer research grants from the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

To find out more about the study, call Cara Hanby at 936-0997.