Interventions for cognitive impairment due to non-localised cancer treatment such as chemotherapy or hormonal therapy

The issue

An increasing number of people are surviving and living longer with cancer due to earlier diagnosis, better treatments and an aging population. In turn, there is an increasing number of people with long-term or long-lasting effects of cancer and its treatment. For example, up to seven in 10 cancer survivors experience changes in ability regarding memory, learning new things, concentrating, planning and making decisions about their everyday life, as a result of cancer treatment. This is known as cognitive impairment and has a significant impact on the daily activities of cancer survivors. These changes may be caused by non-localised, systemic cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and is often called 'chemo-fog' or 'chemobrain'.

The aim of the review

We reviewed studies that have tested interventions intended to improve cognitive impairment or to maintain cognitive function among people who have been treated with systemic cancer treatments.

What are the main findings?

We identified five eligible studies that described six interventions. These included two studies of computerised cognitive skills practice, two cognitive coping skills training programmes, one meditation intervention and one exercise intervention. All five studies included a total of 235 women who had been treated for breast cancer. The findings suggest that cognitive skills practice and cognitive coping skills training may be useful in improving patient reports and formal assessments of cognition, as well as quality of life. There was insufficient evidence to know if meditation and exercise interventions had any effect on cognition.

What is the quality of the evidence?

The quality of the evidence was low. There were problems with study designs and, so, we need to be cautious about our conclusions.

What are the conclusions?

There is not enough good quality evidence to know if any interventions improve cognitive impairment or maintain cognitive functioning among people who have received systemic treatment for cancer. There are several ongoing trials in the field, which may provide the necessary evidence in the future.

Authors' conclusions: 

Overall, the, albeit low-quality evidence may be interpreted to suggest that non-pharmacological interventions may have the potential to reduce the risk of, or ameliorate, cognitive impairment following systemic cancer treatment. Larger, multi-site studies including an appropriate, active attentional control group, as well as consideration of functional outcomes (e.g. activities of daily living) are required in order to come to firmer conclusions about the benefits or otherwise of this intervention approach. There is also a need to conduct research into cognitive impairment among cancer patient groups other than women with breast cancer.

Read the full abstract...

It is estimated that up to 75% of cancer survivors may experience cognitive impairment as a result of cancer treatment and given the increasing size of the cancer survivor population, the number of affected people is set to rise considerably in coming years. There is a need, therefore, to identify effective, non-pharmacological interventions for maintaining cognitive function or ameliorating cognitive impairment among people with a previous cancer diagnosis.


To evaluate the cognitive effects, non-cognitive effects, duration and safety of non-pharmacological interventions among cancer patients targeted at maintaining cognitive function or ameliorating cognitive impairment as a result of cancer or receipt of systemic cancer treatment (i.e. chemotherapy or hormonal therapies in isolation or combination with other treatments).

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Centre Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, Embase, PUBMED, Cumulative Index of Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL) and PsycINFO databases. We also searched registries of ongoing trials and grey literature including theses, dissertations and conference proceedings. Searches were conducted for articles published from 1980 to 29 September 2015.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of non-pharmacological interventions to improve cognitive impairment or to maintain cognitive functioning among survivors of adult-onset cancers who have completed systemic cancer therapy (in isolation or combination with other treatments) were eligible. Studies among individuals continuing to receive hormonal therapy were included. We excluded interventions targeted at cancer survivors with central nervous system (CNS) tumours or metastases, non-melanoma skin cancer or those who had received cranial radiation or, were from nursing or care home settings. Language restrictions were not applied.

Data collection and analysis: 

Author pairs independently screened, selected, extracted data and rated the risk of bias of studies. We were unable to conduct planned meta-analyses due to heterogeneity in the type of interventions and outcomes, with the exception of compensatory strategy training interventions for which we pooled data for mental and physical well-being outcomes. We report a narrative synthesis of intervention effectiveness for other outcomes.

Main results: 

Five RCTs describing six interventions (comprising a total of 235 participants) met the eligibility criteria for the review. Two trials of computer-assisted cognitive training interventions (n = 100), two of compensatory strategy training interventions (n = 95), one of meditation (n = 47) and one of physical activity intervention (n = 19) were identified. Each study focused on breast cancer survivors. All five studies were rated as having a high risk of bias. Data for our primary outcome of interest, cognitive function were not amenable to being pooled statistically. Cognitive training demonstrated beneficial effects on objectively assessed cognitive function (including processing speed, executive functions, cognitive flexibility, language, delayed- and immediate- memory), subjectively reported cognitive function and mental well-being. Compensatory strategy training demonstrated improvements on objectively assessed delayed-, immediate- and verbal-memory, self-reported cognitive function and spiritual quality of life (QoL). The meta-analyses of two RCTs (95 participants) did not show a beneficial effect from compensatory strategy training on physical well-being immediately (standardised mean difference (SMD) 0.12, 95% confidence interval (CI) -0.59 to 0.83; I2= 67%) or two months post-intervention (SMD - 0.21, 95% CI -0.89 to 0.47; I2 = 63%) or on mental well-being two months post-intervention (SMD -0.38, 95% CI -1.10 to 0.34; I2 = 67%). Lower mental well-being immediately post-intervention appeared to be observed in patients who received compensatory strategy training compared to wait-list controls (SMD -0.57, 95% CI -0.98 to -0.16; I2 = 0%). We assessed the assembled studies using GRADE for physical and mental health outcomes and this evidence was rated to be low quality and, therefore findings should be interpreted with caution. Evidence for physical activity and meditation interventions on cognitive outcomes is unclear.