School of Nursing - Make a Gift

Archived News

Helping Chemotherapy Patients Through the Fog

Posted: Nov. 28, 2016

Ashley Henneghan

Ashley Henneghan RN, MSN
Doctoral Candidate at the School of Nursing

Student research project may lead to new clinical guidelines.

"I’m not as quick or as bright as I used to be." Ashley Henneghan, RN, MSN and doctoral candidate at the School of Nursing, often hears this type of comment when working with breast cancer survivors with cognitive problems, commonly referred to as "chemo brain." In fact, it was these types of sentiments that motivated her to study cognitive changes following chemotherapy because it was so apparent that an ability to think clearly and process information relates directly to a person’s personal identity, affecting all aspects of his or her life.

"Some breast cancer survivors have reported that cognitive difficulties are the most adverse treatment side effect, and although the symptoms may diminish for some, for many, the effects persist long after active treatment is completed."

Ashley said. "I conducted a qualitative study to explore the types of stressors that survivors experience during diagnosis, treatment and after the end of treatment that they feel compromise their cognitive abilities." The information gathered from these survivors led to the development of her dissertation project "Bio-behavioral Contributors to Cognition in Breast Cancer Survivors," which recently got a boost after receiving a National Research Service Award from the National Institute of Nursing Research, a rare and competitive award at the predoctoral level. The funding will enable her to continue to examine modifiable factors known to contribute to cognitive impairment after chemotherapy, such as physical activity, loneliness and stress.

"I am looking at these because we know chemotherapy is a risk factor, but we don’t understand, at least at this point, why some survivors who receive chemotherapy experience persistent cognitive problems and others do not," Ashley said. "It’s likely that other ‘real-life’ factors are playing a role," she added.

Because the breast cancer experience occurs within the context of real life, survivors experience a multitude of stressors throughout the cancer trajectory that can negatively impact their ability to function. Cognitive problems can be especially frustrating, embarrassing, and even devastating since, physically, the person appears normal, and others can’t see the problems he or she is experiencing, Ashley added.

"Providers should be aware that these stressors vary at different times during the cancer journey," she said. "My hope is that progress in survivorship research will lead to clinical guidelines that appropriately prevent, treat, and manage the unwanted side effects of cancer treatment and improve survivors’ daily functioning and quality of life."

Bookmark and Share