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In 2009, I wrote about Lisa, a 36-year-old legal analyst, who was attempting to get back to “normal life” after a bout with breast cancer. Prior to treatment she was an extremely articulate communicator, but afterward Lisa felt increasingly frustrated when she couldn’t remember a common word, and multi-tasking became nearly impossible for her.
It turns out Lisa has “chemo brain,” a phenomenon of short-term foggy thinking and forgetfulness that afflicts cancer patients after chemotherapy treatment. Nearly every chemotherapy patient experiences some short-term problems with memory and concentration, but for about 15 percent of cancer survivors, like Lisa, the effects are prolonged. It’s known medically as chemotherapy-induced cognitive impairment.
Until recently, cognitive losses in cancer survivors were dismissed or trivialized by doctors who blamed the phenomenon on fatigue from the illness or the simple aging process, but new research has confirmed chemo brain is real. However, researchers still aren’t quite sure what causes it.
University of Missouri health psychologist Stephanie Reid-Arndt has found evidence that the Chinese martial art tai chi might help cancer survivors to overcome chemo brain.
Tai chi involves practicing slow motion routines and is based on several principles, including mindfulness, breathing awareness, active relaxation and slow movements. The emphasis on slow movement makes tai chi, which literally means “supreme ultimate fist", particularly suited to a wide range of fitness levels, which makes it very relevant for those who have had chemotherapy and as a result might be experiencing physical limitations.
“Scientists have known for years that tai chi positively impacts physical and emotional health, but this small study also uncovered evidence that it might help cognitive functioning as well," said Reid-Arndt. “We know this activity can help people with their quality of life in general, and with this new pilot study, we are encouraged about how tai chi could also help those who have received chemotherapy.