Running Helps Brain Function in Cancer Survivors

Most cancer survivors will list “chemo brain” as one of their experiences with cancer treatments. This is the phrase used for a group of cognitive symptoms, including mental fogginess, trouble concentrating, memory loss, confusion, difficulty learning, and slower mental processes. It typically occurs during or immediately after chemotherapy, but can occur during other treatments and can linger for years after treatments have stopped. It is a problem that is not well understood and studies suggest that there may be multiple causes. However, it is now recognized that cancer and cancer treatments can interfere with brain structure and function in a way that is distressing for some patients and survivors.


The sometimes vague yet distressing mental changes cancer patients notice are real, not imagined. They might last a short time, or they might go on for years. These changes can make people unable to go back to their school, work, or social activities, or make it so that it takes a lot of mental effort to do so. Chemo brain affects everyday life for many people with cancer.

American Cancer Society, Chemo Brain

There may be some good news for those suffering from chemo brain. Exercise, especially aerobic exercise like running, can help heal the brain and repair structure and function. A study published in 2018 by researchers at Brigham Young University shows that exercise, specifically running, can protect the brain from damage and memory loss caused from stress. Another study in 2016 at the University of Ottawa demonstrates the production of internal brain healing compounds when brain damaged mice ran. The study also notes that mice that ran lived longer than mice that were sedentary.

There are many studies that show that brain function can be enhanced by exercise. In 2016, scientists found that the protein, cathepsin B, may be responsible for this. This protein speeds brain cell growth and improves memory in mice. Abnormalities with this molecule are also well known for the roll in cancer. Little is known, specifically, on how running and exercise affects those suffering from chemo brain. However, these studies are just getting started. One such clinical trial is underway with The Ottawa Hospital Foundation.

In the women who received chemotherapy, you could see differences in the patterns of brain activation in the MRI even when they performed perfectly normally on the test. In simplistic terms, the brain is working harder. 

Dr. Barbara Collins, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation

I will look forward to reading more, as the studies are published, about the benefits of running and how it relates to chemo brain. In the meantime, I will keep running and enjoy the many health benefits it offers.

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