Some cancer survivors can't shake foggy brain

July, 2011

For a minority of cancer survivors, cognitive problems will persist for years. Help with sleeping problems, and t’ai chi for stress release, may be beneficial.

A recent study of cancer survivors has found that many survivors still suffer moderate to severe problems with pain, fatigue, sleep, memory and concentration three to five years after treatment has ended.

The study included 248 survivors of breast, colorectal, lung and prostate cancer. The survivors were primarily female and white, and most were more than five years post-diagnosis. Cognitive difficulties were reported by 13%. The other most common symptoms were fatigue (16%), disturbed sleep (15%), and pain (13%). Two assessments were made, one month apart. The similar results indicate these symptoms tend to be chronic.

The researchers pointed to the need for education programs to help survivors transition from treatment to life as a cancer survivor, and the need for clinicians and researchers to develop better ways to address sleep problems, fatigue and lasting difficulties with memory and concentration.

One activity that could be part of a post-treatment program is t'ai chi.  A recent pilot study involving 23 women with a history of chemotherapy has found better cognitive and physical functioning after 10 weeks participating in a 60-minute t’ai chi class twice a week. Before and after the intervention, participants completed tests of memory, executive functioning, language, and attention, as well as tests of balance and self-report questionnaires of neuropsychological complaints, stress and mood, and fatigue.

However, though I’m a big fan of t’ai chi, I do have to note that without a control group, allowing the passing of time and the effects of any sort of group activity to be taken into account, it’s hard to draw any real conclusions from this.

Still, some support for this finding can be found in a recent meta-analysis of research investigating the benefits of t'ai chi for any improvement of medical conditions or clinical symptoms. This review found that the only clear evidence is in relation to fall prevention and improving psychological health. So, only middling support for t'ai chi, but the affirmation of its benefit for psychological health does support the potential value of this meditational practice for cancer survivors.


The findings of the first study were presented June 4 at the 2011 American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting in Chicago.

[2320] Reid-Arndt SA, Matsuda S, Cox CR. Tai Chi effects on neuropsychological, emotional, and physical functioning following cancer treatment: A pilot study. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice [Internet]. Submitted ;In Press, Corrected Proof. Available from:

[2319] Lee MS, Ernst E. Systematic reviews of t'ai chi: an overview. British Journal of Sports Medicine [Internet]. 2011 . Available from: