Memory and Attention Adaptation Training (MAAT): Finding a Way to Deal with Chemo Brain

So, as I’ve written about in previous posts (here and here) there’s this thing called ‘chemo brain’, and contrary to what you might find when you google it, it doesn’t necessarily go away after you finish cancer treatment. It also has a longer name: Cancer-Related Cognitive Impairment (CRCI).

This can be particularly frustrating for those of us who are expected to perform “as before” (meaning, prior to getting cancer) and yet increasingly fall victim to distractions, searching for words, forgetting things as soon as we’re told them, and in general, wondering whether we’ve now come down with a mix of dementia and ADHD.

You’ll need more than a bouquet of forget-me-nots to navigate post-cancer issues like CRCI. Classes like MAAT can help.

There is help, however, and it’s arrived in the form of a class called Memory and Attention Adaptation Training (MAAT). I had the opportunity to take this 8-week class in Fall 2022 and it recently concluded.

The class is intelligently put together, first showing students the science about what they are experiencing (and that it’s not early-onset dementia!), and then over the next two months, teaching tricks and techniques for helping navigate the new landscape of CRCI.

This includes learning stress management techniques, improving sleep and pacing oneself, making self-care a high priority. But the majority of the class was devoted to learning how to use methods such as rehearsal/repetition, situational awareness, scheduling, distraction reduction, active listening and imagery. These help us maintain focus and retain information while reducing overwhelm.

It takes more than littering your desk with post-it notes. We need to create an environment that supports memory storage and distraction reduction.

I took the class through SHARP Hospital in the San Diego, CA area as part of their second cohort. It was taught by a clinical oncology social worker (herself a breast cancer survivor) and a speech pathologist, and their expertise made the class even more worthwhile. While the first cohort was in person, we in the second cohort had the benefit of taking the class via Zoom, which helped with accessibility, especially for those of us who are still working.

And a number of us there were already about 3-5 years out of treatment, which dispells the notion that chemo brain only lasts during treatment. Our cohort members’ ages ran the gamut from early 30s to well into retirement, illustrating that CRCI can show up in any cancer survivors regardless of age.

Realizing that this is affecting many more people that have been reporting symptoms, the SHARP Health Care system has opened the classes to individuals in other health systems in the San Diego area.

No matter where you live, if you are a cancer survivor experiencing some form of cognitive impairment, I urge you to 1) tell your oncological team (They need to know this is happening!) and 2) ask them about the availability of MAAT classes in your region. MAAT is not currently being offered widely, so please make your needs known so that this service can be expanded to those who need it.

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Curiously enough, one of the first assignments we had in the MAAT class was to work with gratitude – yes, it really does help! Such a perfect practice to begin at this time of the year! Happy Holidays to all! ❤

Finishing Faster: Exploring Shorter Radiation Treatment for Early-Stage Breast Cancer

Many of us who have lived through early stage breast cancer with lumpectomy surgery have also gone through radiation treatment.

If you’ve been there, you know the drill: 4-6 weeks of daily radiation sessions. Each one is relatively short, but there’s the time involved in getting there, changing into a gown, waiting for your turn, having the treatment, changing back into your clothes and getting back home (or work or wherever else you need to be).

And this happens every single day, five days a week, for weeks. You get to know your radiation therapists very well. And they get to see your breast over and over again. It goes on and on and on.

Closing the book on cancer treatment is a great feeling. And making radiation even shorter? Yes, please!

However, a recent clinical trial (described in the National Cancer Center’s Cancer Currents blog) examined the efficacy of a shorter 3-week session and found that the results (i.e., chances of cancer recurrence and serious side effects) were comparable to the longer, standard treatment.

Women who have an elevated risk of having the cancer recur at the tumor site are usually given an additional “boost” of radiation to that area. This takes place after the initial weeks of radiation, extending the length of treatment. However, researchers discovered that this boost could be given concurrently, thereby shortening the number of weeks that patients had to undergo radiation without compromising its effectiveness.

From the perspective of a patient, this is very welcome news. Setting aside time every day of the week to make the trip to the cancer center for treatment only works if your other responsibilities are flexible. I was working part-time during this, had access to a car, could get to the cancer center quickly and could be done in time to pick up my kids without too much of a problem. My bosses were extremely understanding and gave me the latitude I needed to complete my treatment with a minimum of stress.

For many, however, this might not be the case. Being able to shorten the overall treatment time could be critical in helping patients finish all their sessions.

It is heartening to know that as cancer treatments evolve, they become much easier to incorporate into our everyday lives. I am hopeful that the changes that come about over the next 10 years will provide even more options for successful completion of treatment with a greater survival rate for all.

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REFERENCES

Reader-Friendly
Ben-Ari, E, Shorter Course of Radiation Is Effective, Safe for Some with Early-Stage Breast Cancer, Cancer Currents, November 30, 2022: https://www.cancer.gov/news-events/cancer-currents-blog/2022/early-breast-cancer-shorter-radiation-therapy

Note: the results of the referenced clinical trial were presented on Oct 24, 2022 at the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas with Frank Vicini, MD as the study leader. My expectation is that more information will be published and I will try to post it here once it is.

“Scatterbrained”: Yeah, Chemo Brain is Real

After a few years of wondering what the heck is going on with my head, I joined a Memory and Attention Adaptation Training (MAAT) class generously provided by my cancer center (which I’ll be posting about on a later date).

This is gratifying on two levels: first, that I can learn new strategies for dealing with the memory issues and distractibility that have been plaguing me since finishing breast cancer treatment five years ago; and second, and perhaps more important to me emotionally, that what I am experiencing is REAL. It’s officially termed Chemotherapy Related Cognitive Impairment (CRCI) or, informally, chemo brain.

I’ve been told that “you’re imagining this” (I’m not) or “you’ve always been like this” (I haven’t) or “just focus harder” (I AM!!!) or even “this is just an excuse” (Argh! No!), coming from people who have been annoyed by my memory lapses.

Chemo brain spends a lot of time just wandering around without an idea of how to get anywhere.

My brain isn’t lazy. As a matter of fact, it’s the opposite problem. My brain is too busy.

In the MAAT class, we learned of a study from the University of British Columbia (UBC) by Kam et al. (2016, Clin Neurophysiol) that examined what happens inside those brains that suffer cognitive impairment from cancer treatment, even years later. In that published study, the experimental group consisted of nineteen breast cancer survivors. All had undergone chemotherapy for early stage breast cancer and had subsequently self-reported cognitive issues.

Researchers at UBC compared these survivors against twelve (non-cancer) control subjects in a task that required sustained attention. All the participants’ brains were monitored via electroencephalogram (EEG) both while working on the task and while at rest.

The results were vindicating for me and, I’m sure, for others experiencing this. Normal brains cycle through periods of focus and periods of “wandering”. However, as the UBC researchers stated in a summary of their results (published here): “We found that chemo brain is a chronically wandering brain, they’re essentially stuck in a shut out mode.”

This was true even when the breast cancer survivors thought that they were focusing. Furthermore, the survivors’ brains exhibited activity even when they were instructed to relax.

Great. We know that chemo brain is an undeniable fact for some cancer survivors and can last for years — in this study, up to three years. However, for me and some of the people in my MAAT class, it’s been five years and we’re still dealing with this, which is frustrating. What can be done about it?

When anxiety and chemo brain collide, you get a confused goat tangled up in a rope. That would be me.

It won’t come as a surprise — anxiety makes everything worse, and that holds true for chemo brain too. As mentioned above, I’ll discuss this in greater detail in a later post, but basically, a main focus of the MAAT class is learning to handle stressors in an effort to relieve anxiety.

So now that I know that what I’m experiencing is a real thing, a large part of combatting it is what I’m already trying to do — mindfulness, meditation, yoga and similar sensible self-care. And while it might seem aggravating that even with all that practice I’m still dealing with this, I’m actually bouyed by the fact that every bit of mindfulness helps. The reality is, I’ve made a monumental amount of progress from where I was when I started, five years ago.

And that keeps me going. Where would I be if I wasn’t trying?

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References:

Reader-friendly summary:
“‘Chemo brain’ is real, say UBC researchers”, UBC News, Apr 27, 2015, https://news.ubc.ca/2015/04/27/chemo-brain-is-real-say-ubc-researchers/

The published study:
Kam JWY, Brenner CA, Handy TC, Boyd LA, Liu-Ambrose T, Lim HJ, Hayden S, Campbell KL (2016) Sustained attention abnormalities in breast cancer survivors with cognitive deficits post chemotherapy: An electrophysiological study, Clinical Neurophysiology, 127, 369-378. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clinph.2015.03.007
Please note that the above study is not available free online at this time. For a pdf free of charge, contact one of the authors (email address next to their name at link above) or your local university library. Due to copyright issues, I am unable to distribute the full document myself.

Webinar: Recent Advances in Breast Cancer Treatments

As we close out October, otherwise known as “Breast Cancer Awareness Month”, I wanted to share a video of a webinar about advances in the fight against breast cancer, offered through the Yale Alumni Health Network, led by Dr. Jamie Wells.

The speakers included Dr. David Mankoff (from UPenn) and Drs. Lajos Pusztai, Maryam Lustberg and Eric Winer (all from Yale) as they talked about research being done on hormone-positive, HER2 receptor positive and triple negative breast cancers. I’ve pasted in the Vimeo clip from Twitter, but also offer my simplified synopsis below. If you have the time to watch (~45 min for the talks, then interesting Q&As for about 20 minutes), I highly recommend the video!

In the midst of the discussions, it was heartening to hear that the doctors placed a lot of emphasis on both health disparities in different populations and also the search for treatments that would not severely impact a patient’s quality-of-life. These are two important topics. I appreciated that they acknowledged that we cannot make advances in the disease if we are leaving behind large numbers of people for whom treatment is inaccessible, and that a treatment is not viable if it successfully treats the cancer but damages the patient in other ways.

The best overall news is that since 1990, deaths from breast cancer have decreased by a third. That’s a significant improvement within the past 30 or so years, even though the prevalence of the disease is increasing. Dr. Mankoff noted that the survival rate improvements are due not simply to earlier detection, but also to advances in the treatments.

HORMONE-POSITIVE BREAST CANCER

Dr. Lustberg spoke about hormone-positive breast cancers and started with a quick explanation of the history of such cancers, and then explained how current-day personalized medicine (genomic profiling) can identify the patients who might be spared chemo based on the characteristics of their tumors, and how targeted therapies improve survival rates. She experienced some audio issues towards the very end of her talk, but not much information was lost.

She acknowledged that the “most effective drug is one you can take”, stating that there’s been an effort to try to understand the toxicity of various treatments. If the drug’s side effects are too negative, patients will have a hard time continuing to take it. She noted the importance of keeping the patient involved in the decision making process, something that all of us who have been through this can applaud. It’s too easy for oncologists to forget that they’re treating a human being who will be dealing with the concequences of heavy treatments.

HER2+ BREAST CANCER

Dr. Winer discussed HER2-targeted therapy, noting that prior to the year 2000, it was considered one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer with common recurrences, after which the prognosis for survival was poor. As a HER2+ cancer suvivor, I am so thankful that this is no longer the case! The landscape changed with the introduction of monoclonal antibody drugs such as Herceptin, and the development of additional drugs, should Herceptin stop working, has given patients with this type of cancer much more hope for a full recovery.

Two of these new drugs for metastatic HER2+ cancer are “antibody drug conjugates” (T-DM1 and trastuzumab deruxtucan). Dr. Winer described them as Trojan Horses, as they can deliver the chemotherapy with which they’re paired directly into the cell, greatly decreasing side effects to the patient.

It’s so refreshing to hear the words “cancer” and “cure” used together in the same sentence. We are making serious progress now!

Perhaps most important, Dr. Winer actually used the word “cured” when talking about the outcomes for early stage HER2+ cancers, something that is truly remarkable. This is especially true for women with stage I cancers.

Many patients with stage II & III cancers receive the drugs prior to surgery, which can decrease the need for mastectomies and complete removal of the lymph nodes. In addition, pre-surgical treatment can guide the medical team in adjusting later therapies, based on how the tumor reacts to early drug administration.

Finally, Dr. Winer spoke of the stark disparities in cancer care, noting that black women are twice as likely to die from breast cancer as white women. Eliminating these disparities is his number one-rated area of importance for where to focus future efforts, something I strongly support.

TRIPLE NEGATIVE BREAST CANCER

Dr. Pusztai spoke of Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC), and having lost several friends to this specific type of cancer, I was very interested in treatment advances that have been made. He described the differences beween TNBC and hormone positive breast cancers, noting that it’s likely that these two diseases orginated from completely different cell types, suggesting that these are different diseases and should be viewed as such.

It was exciting to learn that most of the patients with early stage TNBC disease are able to be cured (again, that beautiful word!). We now have both better treatment strategies and new drugs, and success rates are improving year by year. Dr. Pusztai emphasized the benefits of completing chemotherapy prior to surgery, going against our strong impulse to “get the cancer out” first. With the drug-first strategy, medical teams can adjust the post-operative treatments as needed.

The thing that was so amazing to me was that the recurrence-free rate of survival was 85-90% with these “modern regimens” for early stage disease. That’s impressive!

Next on the horizon is fine-tuning the right balance of drugs for patients, given that chemotherapies are still toxic.

There’s still a lot to be done, but all of this makes me feel so hopeful for a future in which a cancer diagnosis is something that we don’t have to fear.

Dr. Pusztai stated that he felt we already have the drugs with which to cure “at least some” of the metastatic TNBC patients, especially for those who are diagnosed at stage IV (rather than having earlier-stage disease that was treated and later metastasized). The idea is to utilize existing drugs but apply them using the new treatment strategies that have been developed. However, Dr. Pusztai stressed that new drugs are also being developed.

Q&As

There were a range of excellent questions that began at about the 45-minute mark, but as mentioned above, I enjoyed hearing the admissions by the doctors that they considered quality of life to be a very important factor in whether or not to continue medications, and they acknowledged that it is the patient who should have the control to balance their risks against their treatment options. Other questions included recurrence in hormone-positive cancers, development of drug resistance, genetic testing, continuation of care (“risk-stratified follow-up care”) and second opinions.

Dr. Winer commented that within a decade he felt we will have all the treatment we need to prevent and cure breast cancer in most patients, so again, he stressed that the focus must turn to making that treatment available to everyone, regardless of who they are.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST…

Dr. Winer admitted that many doctors, in treating patients, end up “taking over people’s lives and medicalizing their lives”. His approach, therefore, is “to try to provide therapy without making someone either unhappy or feeling like they are attached with a leash to their doctor’s office.” While there was some discussion related to this, I appreciated that doctors are actually thinking about this and want to allow patients to “live their lives”.

Finally, I was amused by the doctors’ admissions that even they found the drug names to be unpronounceable. It’s true that in my own treatment, I usually stuck to the easiest name to pronounce…I can’t imagine having to use those names on a daily basis!

I hope you found this helpful!

Finally, This Is My Real 5-Year Anniversary

I was going to write about something else for this week’s post until I realized that I had another five-year breast cancer anniversary to share: the end of my radiation treatment.

It had run for six weeks, five days a week — going to the cancer center became a daily habit. But on October 23, 2017, I rang the gong signifying the end of treatment, said my good-byes to the radiation oncology staff and left them with baked goodies.

Cancer treatment felt like a never-ending vortex of scary experiences…but it did finally end.

With 2022 being five years since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve had a number of anniversaries to share this year. What makes Oct. 23 significant is that it marked the end of all the “tough stuff” that people scare you with about cancer. By that date, I’d put the diagnosis, surgery, chemo and then radiation behind me.

Because 2017 had been a miserable year, when radiation was done I thought I could finally take a deep breath. I’d waited for this point in my treatment for a long time and decided that I would lose myself in the spirit of the holiday season.

The problem was, you never really get rid of all your concerns. You release some, but others show up to take their place. I finished radiation…but wait, there’s more! Now I was going on tamoxifen and that brought a whole new set of issues, and yes, fears, with it.

So I spent Christmas season doing my best to enjoy myself but the holidays passed by and left me feeling a little empty. I’d expected a lot out of them and they didn’t deliver.

I had wanted to be free of all my worries but that’s not how cancer works. In fact, that’s not how life works either. It took me five years to figure out that I couldn’t get what I wanted, but what I could make of it was beautiful in its own way.

Admittedly, it was a tall order. After cancer, I tought the world would shine with joy, but that wasn’t realistic. Cancer isn’t the kind of disease you say to, “done!”, brush your hands off and walk out the door. It tags along behind you, if not as the disease, then as its shadow.

Fast forward five years to now…ok, ok, I know what I got wrong back then.

I had felt like life owed me something amazing because it had put me through cancer. I thought I deserved a post-cancer life that was perfect. Of course, it wasn’t. And it still isn’t.

So if there’s something to celebrate, it’s that I learned a few things over the past five years.

This holiday season I’m not going to be expecting things to wow me. But I am going to be enjoying the fact that I am still physically active and working the same university job, expanding my horizons as a new yoga teacher and finding fun ways to spend my time. And mostly, that I have moved past the feeling of anger that I felt about cancer and found some gratitude to fill its space.

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I know I keep going on and on about how much better life is when you’re not carrying the burden of anger, but honestly, if I’d known that acceptance would lighten me up this much, I would have done it sooner!

Remember: You’re in the Driver’s Seat

Since we’re halfway through October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month – this is a good opportunity to remind everyone who’s had a cancer diagnosis that you’re still in control.

That might be very different from what you’re feeling. The whole thing with cancer is the sense that your life is out of control. Even your most faithful ally, your body, seems to be out to get you, growing a tumor behind your back.

Does it feel like someone else is controlling everything in your life?

That’s to say nothing of how your weekly schedule gets highjacked with oncological appointments, radiation treatments and days recovering from chemo. Then there’s the onslaught of new medical terms, the many pills that you’re supposed to take, even the practically unpronounceable chemotherapy drug names (what kind of a suffix is “-ib”???).

If anything, this might feel like the most out-of-control time of your life. When you’re slapped with a difficult treatment plan, you want it all to stop, but your oncologist tells you, “we won’t let you skip an infusion or stop taking your medication.”

That sense of being forced to do something (especially when it’s unpleasant) can open the floodgates to a deluge of anxiety on top of the fear and frustration that you might already feel about your cancer treatment. No one wants to feel like they have no say in a matter that affects them so deeply and personally.

This life is yours…and so are decisions about your cancer treatment.

But remember this: you always have a choice. Even though your medical team might not be phrasing it that way, you are still in control.

Perhaps this tiny acknowledgement may relax some of that perceived pressure and actually make it easier to continue. Your cancer treatment choices remain yours to make, so allow that realization to help you to step back, get perspective and weigh your options. When you demand space for yourself, you have room to think and it’s easier to act in your own best interest.

So, breathe. You’re still calling all the shots.

And, hey, medical team: maybe stop being so pushy and remind those cancer patients that they get to make the decisions about their treatment and their lives. It would go a long way towards helping your patients feel better about their treatment plans, like they’re part of the team instead of a prisoner of their situation.

A Reflection on “Chemo Fatigue”

After posting videos from my final infusion where I described chemo fatigue, I felt it important to follow up with a debriefing.

I was not in a good headspace during that time. I had started a mindfulness meditation practice five months earlier but had too little experience and not enough training for it to significantly affect my mindset, 50+ years in the making.

When I write a cancer-related post, I straddle a line. On the one hand, I want to provide an admittedly subjective and honest account of what I experienced during treatment; on the other hand, understanding that we all come from different backgrounds and may have vastly different perceptions of what cancer means to us, I don’t want to color the reader’s view of what their experience might be like.

Cancer revealed a lot more about myself than I expected to find.

There have been times that I held back on projecting too much of my own personal state. I waited five years to post my videos on Chemo Fatigue because I didn’t know whether it was appropriate to do so. They remain some of the rawest and truest representations of the despair that I felt at the time. I was still very angry and frustrated, feeling what I recognize now as a deep sense of betrayal.

It was mindfulness meditation along with deep reflection, expert counseling and simply the passage of time that ended up bringing me out of the anger. That process took a lot longer than I ever expected. It also showed me aspects of my personality that I hadn’t understood before because I’d never had to confront them.

So while I still would never say that cancer had a positive effect on me, just as with many heavy life experiences, it took me to a new level of maturity and self-awareness. I am very thankful to be on this side of treatment, although I’m acutely aware that everything may change with the next scan. That makes every moment all the more precious.

The Benefits of Physical Activity During Cancer Treatment and How to Begin

While this isn’t exclusively an exercise blog, if you’ve perused my posts you’ve probably noticed that I’m a huge proponent of exercise for both cancer patients and survivors (well, actually for everyone; but see my important message at the bottom of this post).

The best way to achieve this is to start exercising right now, if you are not yet, no matter what stage of the cancer experience you’re in.

There is a growing body of research that shows the benefits of exercise for cancer folk (I’ve written about it here). But the fact is that only about 17-37% of cancer survivors meet the minimum physical activity guidelines set out by the American Cancer Society (Hirschey et al., 2017, Cancer Nurs) even though doing so reduces the risk of cancer recurrence by 55%, not to mention the improvement in quality of life (Cannioto et al., 2021, J Natl Cancer Inst).

Exercise, the Cancer Fighter. In the not too distant future, your oncologist might hand you an exercise prescription as part of your cancer treatment.

Now, there is a call to include exercise as an adjuvant therapy for cancer for those who are currently undergoing chemotherapy. During the Oncology session of the 7th International Congress of the Spanish Society of Precision Health (SESAP) that took place in Spring 2022, Adrián Castillo García, a researcher at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Institute (IIBB) of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), reviewed recent studies regarding the benefits of exercise during cancer treatment, including the potential role that it had in “modulating the tumor microenvironment and immune function.”

You can read a synopsis of his statements here in the section entitled “Exercise as Oncological Therapy” (starting towards the bottom of page 2). Castillo states that physical exercise “has been shown to have the ability to modulate the tumor environment… . This modulating effect translates into an improvement in the efficacy of chemotherapy and other oncological treatments.”

Castillo goes on to say that “prescribing doses of physical activity at an established intensity and volume can be very decisive in combating the tumor microenvironment, but this preliminary evidence must be confirmed in trials on humans to ratify the role of exercise as a treatment capable of improving the efficacy of the main therapies.” (All quotes from the aforementioned synopsis.)

With such promising results, it’s quite possible that future cancer treatments may be a combination of medicine and physical activity.

Ok, so say that you are not an avid exerciser, but motivated by these studies you’re willing to give regular exercise a go. What do you do when you’re already feeling fatigued from treatments?

I wrote about this here, but in a nutshell, the idea is that you need to decide what the right starting point is for you, and this will depend on your previous experiences, both physical and emotional, with a physical activity program. It will also depend on what you can manage at any given time in your treatment.

Starting an exercise program? Make it something that you can do and enjoy, and it will become a life-long habit.

Ask yourself, “what is reasonable for me?” But don’t respond to that with a t-shirt slogan-type answer (“Exercise? I thought you said extra fries?!?”) that immediately shuts down the idea. Admittedly, there may be times during treatment that getting yourself to the toilet without help is a momumental achievement. But that will pass. And exercise will make you feel more in control of your health and better overall.

IMPORTANT: Find what you can do and then do it as consistently as you can.

This may mean starting very simply [always get your doctor’s okay first!]. Choose an activity, duration and frequency, say, brisk walking for 20 minutes a day, three days a week. Follow that pattern for two weeks, then add to it–perhaps another 10 minutes–not to overwhelm yourself, but simply to push the edge a bit (you can always ease off if you need to, give it a week and increase again). If possible, increase some aspect of your program every couple of weeks, as it suits your condition. In the example of walking, incorporate a flight of stairs and gradual upper body movements: first pumping the arms, then hand weights, eventually strength training for both upper and lower body.

The timing is up to you.

If a walking program feels too easy for you, train at a higher level, but remember that the same concepts still apply: (1) consistency, (2) progression, (3) balance in your activities. If you’re interested, read my post about my three “pillars” of fitness.

Most importantly, start, progress gradually and keep it up for the rest of your life.

If your starting point is a standstill, this will take patience. But I PROMISE you, no matter what you can muster, it will still be better than doing nothing.

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I know I already said this, but it bears repeating, especially for cancer patients and survivors: do not start any exercise program without consulting with your medical team first. While I feel that improving your physical fitness is one of the best things you can do for yourself, every body is different and every cancer situation is different. Talk to your doctor and let them know what you’re planning to do.

Victims of Our Own Success: Premature Aging in Cancer Patients and What You Can Do About It

So this isn’t the kind of news you want to see. But there’s still hope…

A scientific journal article from 2017 (Cupit-Link et al., 2017, ESMO Open) describes the toll that cancer treatments can take on the patients subjected to them.

After being told you have cancer and deciding to proceed with the treatments that will offer you the best chance of survival…it’s disheartening to learn that many of those same treatments can accelerate aging, causing damage to your DNA, heart disease, hearing loss, cataracts, liver and kidney diseases, brittle bones, lowered immune response and other cancers (!) among other issues, depending on the type of cancer and treatment (see WebMD article).

The treatments that can save our lives from cancer may hasten our demise from age-related factors.

This is a problem resulting, ironically, from the success of treatments and extended lifespan of cancer survivors. Back when cancer was deadly with a low survival rate, no one was too concerned about the state in which survivors were left in; simply surviving the cancer was enough. Now that people are beating their cancers at greater rates, quality of life has become a much bigger issue.

While the most striking detriments are seen in childhood cancer survivors, accelerated aging occurs in most former cancer patients.

Doctors and researchers are taking note. At the time of this scientific article’s publishing in Dec 2017, there was already discussion on how to “de-escalate” cancer treatments as a way to decrease the amount of cellular damage to patients.

On a personal level, I chose an effective drug for my HER2+ breast cancer (Herceptin) over a more effective drug (Perjeta) that carried a risk of greater cardiotoxicity. I made that decision because although I was terrified of cancer, I was also afraid of what lasting effects the drug would have on me once the treatments were over.

Cancer treatments are strong but healthy living can help mitigate their negative effects.

But even if you didn’t have the opportunity to make such a choice, there’s still something that you can do. The authors of that 2017 paper noted that cancer survivors can take back some control over their health by adopting or continuing those healthy lifestyle habits that should sound familiar by now: not smoking, limiting alcohol, exercising regularly and eating a healthful diet.

To that, I would also add, managing your stress levels, the importance of which has been demonstrated on a cellular level, and getting optimal amounts of sleep.

Improving longevity is a hot field for research as scientists work to determine what aspects of one’s lifestyle show the greatest promise in keeping the body young. This topic is complex and new data is coming in on a regular basis, so I won’t delve into details here, but it stands to reason that being sedentary and eating a high-sugar, high-processed diet is not going to do you any favors.

Just as cancer treatments may have a negative effect on overall health, you can win back some lost ground by making healthy, informed decisions on diet and exercise. No one wants to limit their cancer treatment options, so this is one form of insurance that you can give yourself. No matter what else happens, a healthy lifestyle will benefit your quality of life. And that is an improvement that is yours to keep.

Melatonin As Cancer Fighter? Maaaaybe…

The last time I was researching the link between cancer and sleep, noting the myriad benefits gained from solid nighttime rest, I was surprised to see mention of melatonin’s role in decreasing the risk of cancer.

For anyone who might not be familiar with it, melatonin (a tryptophan derivative) is a naturally-occuring hormone secreted by the pineal gland that signals when it’s time to sleep and wake. It’s mediated by light levels, with the amount of melatonin in your body increasing as the sun goes down. You’ve probably seen melatonin on the vitamin shelves at your local store, as in recent years it’s been popularized as a non-addictive sleep aid. What I hadn’t realized was that its effect on cancer cells has become an active area of study.

I dug into the PubMed database to find there was quite a bit on this topic. However, note that not all the journals in which these results were published were familiar to me, so I cannot vouch for the rigor of the peer review, however, there was a general consensus that melatonin showed promise.

Melatonin shows a lot of promise as a cancer fighting hormone.

It’s well-established that women who work night shifts experience disruption of their circadian cycle and have an increased risk of breast cancer risk, purported to result from extra circulating estrogen (Cohen et al., 1978, Lancet). Researchers are now linking that disruption with a decrease in melatonin production.

Amin et al. (2019, J Cell Biochem) describe the action of melatonin as it relates to cancer: “Melatonin via its receptors and various second messenger pathways decrease[s] cell duplication and increase[s] cell differentiation.” Since cancer tumors are composed of a proliferation of poorly differentiated cells, this means that the action of melatonin works against the process by which cancer develops and progresses.

Amin et al. continue by noting that melatonin “regulates estrogen-dependent pathways (by nonreceptor-dependent means) and reduces the production of oxidants; as a result, melatonin inhibits cell toxicity and mutations….Melatonin interrupts estrogen-dependent cell signaling and also causes reduced estrogen-stimulated cells in breast cancer. [It] is a mammary tumor inhibitor…[as relates to the] development, progression, and metastasis of breast cancer via a number of molecular mechanisms.”

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled research study showed that melatonin has a neuroprotective effect that can counteract the effects of chemotherapy on “cognitive function, sleep quality and depressive symptoms” (Palmer et al., 2020, PLOS One). These are significant side effects that have a profound impact on the patient’s quality of life, and anything that may relieve these will improve the entire treatment experience.

Griffin & Marignol (2018, Int J Radiat Biol) noted that melatonin administered to subjects before they were exposed to ionizing radiation resulted in the breast cancer cells being more sensitized to the radiation therapy, rendering it more effective. And melatonin seemed to reduce the radiation-induced side effects exhibited by both human and rodent subjects.

No matter how many drug treatments are available for cancer, they do no good if the cancer cells develop a resistance to them. In a study published this year, Sang et al. (2021, Cancer Lett) found that melatonin increased the effectivess of drug lapatinib in HER2 receptor-positive breast cancer cells that were originally resistant to the drug, suggesting that melatonin could be a promising adjuvant therapy for treating advanced HER2+ tumors.

So, melatonin may reduce breast cancer risk, make existing treatments more effective and help protect patients against negative effects of these therapies. Does that mean you should run out and gobble melatonin every night?

Many studies are first run on animal subjects, but to truly determine whether a treatment will be effective for cancer patients, it must be tested on humans.

No! As tempting as it sounds, that’s not an advisable course of action. Many more studies still have to be run to evaluate the exact mechanisms by which melatonin acts on physiological processes. Some of the results in the cited studies were based on small sample sizes; good for proof of concept, but following up with larger scale studies is critical. Some studies were run on animal models which are not the best human analogues. In addition, there’s little direction regarding proper therapeutic dosages. Establishing those will take additional research.

Keep in mind: a naturally-occurring hormone like melatonin likely has a “sweet spot” in terms of dosing, and determining the ideal amount may be tricky. Just because you can buy melatonin gummies in 10mg doses does not mean you should be taking that much.

Furthermore, melatonin may elicit negative side effects in some people, including headaches, nightmares and nausea. Side effects tend to be short-lived with short-term usage but there’s still not enough information available about long-term safety, so taking it for longer periods of time is strongly discouraged.

Note also, the articles I’ve mentioned above were selected because they describe recent research, although some of these are review articles that espouse the authors’ opinion, backed up by research selected for the purpose. If you’d like to read the above studies yourself and the links I’ve posted do not provide you full access, please consult your local university library for copies (copyright laws prohibit me from providing access to pay-only articles, regrettably).

Finally, it may be that some of melatonin’s benefits might be its undoing. Reiter et al. (2017, Int J Mol Sci) note that melatonin is inexpensive and readily available, and therefore there might not be the same level of interest in researching and developing it for cancer use as there might be with a novel drug with the potential to be more lucrative.

Where does this leave us?

I would urge you to:
1) Ask your oncologist about what they would recommend, given the research that’s coming out. They are still your best source for information. FranticShanti.com is only a blog and can be used as food-for-thought but definitely not for determining your course of treatment.
2) Learn how to read scientific studies. There are free courses on educational site such as Coursera.com that explain research design and interpretation in layperson terms. They can offer instruction on reading research with a critical eye.
3) Keep an eye on emerging research. Databases such as PubMed are excellent sources for health research. Even if you’re not well-versed in research design, you can look up articles to bring to your next visit with a health provider.
4) Do not take megadoses of melatonin! There is still so much we have to learn about this hormone as it relates to cancer, and self-medicating with melatonin in the hopes that “maybe it’ll help” is dangerous. Again, your oncologist remains your best source of information.

Promising drugs aside, get your sleep!

I do encourage you to respect your circadian rhythm by establishing good sleep hygiene practices to improve the conditions for your body to create and release its own melatonin. Proper and adequate sleep will always benefit you!

And so we get back to the idea that launched this post: sleep remains the ultimate good.

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It bears repeating: ALWAYS ask your cancer team about starting any new medication or supplement, regardless of how well-supported it is by research.