What You Need to Know About Cancer-Related Cognitive Impairment

Many cancer survivors experience cognitive difficulties: trouble with thinking, memory and speech. They may struggle to concentrate or feel foggy or spacey. These symptoms are often attributed to chemotherapy, and survivors may say they are suffering from “chemobrain” or “chemofog.”

A large body of evidence, including patient reports, neurocognitive tests and brain imaging studies, points to real and significant cognitive difficulties for cancer survivors. These difficulties can last for months or even years after treatment has ended. This what we call cancer-related cognitive impairment (CRCI).

The spectrum of cognitive difficulties covered by CRCI can’t be blamed on chemotherapy alone. For one thing, other treatments, such as radiation or hormone therapy, can also lead to CRCI. Also, studies have shown that people diagnosed with cancer perform worse on neurocognitive tests even before their first chemo treatment.

The good news is that most people treated for cancer likely will not experience CRCI that persists after treatment. One study found that 35 to 40 percent of breast cancer patients experienced some decline in their cognitive abilities up to 6 months after their treatment. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the study also found that 10 to 15 percent of people without cancer in the same age group reported declines over the same period.

In the next few years, we should have a better picture of what causes CRCI, how to prevent it and how to treat it.

SOURCE: Todd S. Horowitz, Ph.D, Program Director of the Behavioral Research Program, National Cancer Institute

We have been introduced to innovative treatments for patients and new ways to prevent and detect cancer at its earliest, most treatable stages. These developments are potentially lifesaving for the 1.7 million Americans who will be diagnosed with cancer this year, along with the nationwide community of survivors, caregivers and those most at risk of developing the disease.

Research needs funding

However, this incredible progress does little to benefit cancer patients if promising research and innovative treatments get trapped in a lab. Advancements in cancer treatment and prevention will plateau if research efforts are not continuously supported through investment and funding. The federal government is by far the largest funder of cancer research, and it plays a role in virtually every major medical development in the ongoing fight against cancer. We know that significant and sustained increases to federal research funding are essential to the development of new diagnostic tests and therapies.

Reaching the federal level

To continue this momentum, we need to ensure that future medical breakthroughs make it from the lab to the patient by increasing research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Our ability to deepen our knowledge of how to best fight cancer depends on a nationwide commitment to increasing research funding at the federal level. 

Lawmakers have already demonstrated widespread bipartisan support for efforts to increase federal funding for cancer research. Making cancer research a national legislative priority is the first step in conquering a disease that will claim the lives of more than 600,000 Americans this year. As Congress prepares fiscal year 2019 appropriations bills, legislators can maximize discovery in cancer prevention, detection and treatment by including a $2 billion funding increase for the NIH and a $190 million funding boost for the NCI.