How Breast Cancer Might Affect Your Brain

Breast cancer patients may experience cognitive problems before they start chemotherapy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) The breast is a long way from the brain, but now it seems a breast cancer diagnosis might affect patients’ ability to think.

A new study from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet in Munich found that women with breast cancer may develop problems with memory and other basic functions. These symptoms occurred even before they started chemotherapy — which has long been known to affect cognition.

The authors of this study theorized that there may be a link between cancer diagnosis, cognitive deficits and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Study leader Dr. Kerstin Hermelink, of Munich University Hospital, said in a press release, "Cancer patients can perceive and experience their condition as a severe trauma. Indeed, many of them develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly in the early phase after they receive the diagnosis. Stress has a very considerable influence on cognitive performance and definitely impacts on brain function — so it was quite natural for us to ask whether the cognitive deficiencies displayed by many breast cancer patients might not be attributable to the stress that is inevitably associated with malignant disease."

Cognitive changes in cancer patients have long been thought to be the result of side effects from chemotherapy. However, Dr. Hermelink and colleagues noted that more recent research suggests people develop mild cognitive problems like forgetfulness or become easily distracted even before chemotherapy starts.

Researchers have advanced other theories, such as that the cancer itself disrupts brain functions. Dr. Hermelink and team felt that the psychological disturbance resulting from the cancer diagnosis might induce PTSD.

PTSD is a mental health disorder that can occur after a traumatic event.

Dr. Hermelink and team studied 166 women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and 60 women who had no signs of the disease. All of the women took three standard cognitive tests over the course of a year.

The women who had breast cancer were assessed after diagnosis but before any treatment was started — and then twice more in the first year after diagnosis. The tests assessed the patients’ ability to make decisions, focus their attention on something and remember information.

Although most of the test results were similar for healthy women and the women who had breast cancer, one test showed significant differences in cognition. The breast cancer patients also said they experienced more cognitive problems than the healthy patients.

Dr. Hermelink and team stressed that they were not saying that cancer diagnoses caused PTSD that then results in cognitive problems — only that there was a link.

"For breast cancer patients our findings are good news," Dr. Hermelink said. "At all events — in pretreatment phase at least — they give no grounds for the belief that such patients suffer from more than minimal cognitive deficiencies, which are induced by the stress associated with the disease itself."

This study was published April 17 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Deutsche Krebshilfe funded this research. Dr. Hermelink and team disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
April 17, 2015
Last Updated:
April 20, 2015