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Experts Gather to Discuss Cancer-Related Cognitive Impairment: School of Nursing student attends international conference to present study results

Posted: March 21, 2016

Ashley Henneghan, RN, MSN,
and doctoral student

Earlier this month, researchers, clinicians and scientists traveled to Amsterdam to discuss the effects of disease and treatment on the cognitive abilities of cancer survivors at the 5th biennial International Cognition and Cancer Taskforce meeting. One of the attendees was Ashley Henneghan, RN, MSN, and doctoral student at The University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing, who presented her poster “Self-Regulatory Demands Impacting Survivors’ Cognitive Capacities.”

Ashley’s research focuses on cognitive problems, often labeled “chemo brain,” that have been reported in as many as 75 percent of cancer survivors.

“Some breast cancer survivors have reported that these 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.”

One conclusion of the study is that the breast cancer experience occurs within the context of real life and survivors experience a multitude of stressors throughout the cancer trajectory that can negatively impact their ability to function. Furthermore, providers should be aware that these stressors vary at different times during their cancer journey, Ashley added.

Ashley at the 5th biennial International Cognition
and Cancer Taskforce meeting

The problem can cause some people to struggle in their workplace, and many feel forced to retire at a time when they are at the top of their earning years, according to Heather Becker, PhD and research scientist at the UT Austin School of Nursing, who worked with Ashley on the study.

“According to the Livestrong Foundation, 55 percent of cancer survivors worry they will be forced to retire or quit before they are ready,” Dr. Becker said. “And one-third decide not to pursue an advancement or promotion, fearing they are not up to the job.”

On March 14, 15 and 16, 2016, the ICCTF meeting was held at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. Topics included “Mechanisms Underlying Cognitive Decline in Cancer Patients,” “Ins and Outs of Neurogenesis,” “Sleep and Cognition,” “Cancer, Cognition and Ability to Work,” and “Brain Tumor and Neuroplasticity.”

The mission of the International Cognition and Cancer Taskforce is to advance the understanding of the impact of cancer and cancer-related treatment on cognitive and behavioral functioning in cancer patients with special attention for adults with non-central nervous system cancers.

Several ICCTF working groups have been formed to identify research needs and opportunities, to help facilitate inter-institutional and multi-national collaboration, and to identify sources of funding to sponsor this research.

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