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Exercise & Myeloma: Help with Chemo Brain?

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Exercise & Myeloma: Help with Chemo Brain?

Eight columns about exercise?  Lifestyle columnist, Danny Parker, must feel pretty strongly about it’s value.  I’m with you, Danny!  I can’t count the times that I have felt poorly following chemotherapy and exercising has helped me feel better and think more clearly:

Exercise & Myeloma:  Help with Chemo Brain?

You’ll feel better after exercise.

Almost everyone who has been sedentary and begins to exercise will notice how, while one may dread the idea of exercise in the beginning, after it is done, you feeling lighter and your mood is often lifted.

You feel better in body and spirit. And you’ll likely realize the benefits regardless of how modest the exercise.

Chemo Brain from exposure to chemotherapy agents is a real worry to many of us. At my job at the University, I run on my brain, so I was particularly concerned about that. I remember professing that worry to my doctor on the transplant ward two days after I was dosed with the mephalan. I was steeling myself for loss of mental function, I told him.

He seemed immediately dubious. Who had told me that? “Oh, have you felt anything?”  “No, not yet,” I said, “I feel really sick, but my brain is fine.” I had even been writing a bit, and being cooped up had really seemed to motivate me even given the intense nausea.

That damage had already been done the stoic doc told me. The mephalan (the chemo poison) was processed out of the body quickly; there was no further damage to be done. Really? For sure, he said.

I was totally happy that day—even if very sick.

But maybe the other drugs, Dexamethasone, Velcade and Revlimid, hurt us over the long run. Or the perhaps the terrible alkalating agents have a delayed reaction. Who knows? In contrast to the latest games from Luminosity to help you become smarter, it turns out there is a scientifically demonstrated way to improve your mental functioning: get more exercise.

In 2010, researchers led by Justin S. Rhodes, a psychology professor at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, performed tests on four groups of mice, two with bare-bones cages—one with a running wheel and one without and two with swanky decorated mice abodes with lots of toys of which one had a running wheel.  The study showed that the toys and luxurious setting made no difference in the mice’s mental progress during the study.  Only the running wheel made a difference, but the difference it made was large:

“Exercise though seems to slow or reverse the brain’s physical decay, much as it does with muscles. Although scientists thought until recently that humans were born with a certain number of brain cells and would never generate more, they now know better. In the 1990s, using a technique that marks newborn cells, researchers determined during autopsies that adult human brains contained quite a few new neurons. Fresh cells were especially prevalent in the hippocampus, indicating that neurogenesis — or the creation of new brain cells — was primarily occurring there. Even more heartening, scientists found that exercise jump-starts neurogenesis.”


And walking is not the only thing that might help. There is evidence that slow, deliberate, but gentle exercises such ad Tai Chi might be helpful. For instance a 10 week study of 23 Canadian women evaluated a year after chemotherapy showed that perhaps a third experienced mild cognitive impairment.  However, the same study showed that intervention using the ancient slow-moving Chinese exercise of Tai Chi for 60 minutes twice a week led to measureable improvements to cognitive ability.

exerciseMoreover, an even easier system of Chinese movement exercises, call Chi Gung, may also be similarly useful. These emphasize breathing and simple movements. My Zen teacher, Ed Brown, is in his sixties and does these exercises each morning. “You shouldn’t do these if you don’t want to live to be a hundred,” he jokes. With myeloma, I ignore that. “It should be easy in the beginning and easy in the middle part of the sequence,” Ed counsels, “but finally easy at the end.”

Gentle yoga sequences, as often used in Kripalu Yoga, may also be helpful too. Stretching and quiet can help both body and spirit. But not all yoga is the same. Seek out someone doing classes that fit your limitations and abilities and be willing to try out a few. As always, the instructor can make a big difference.

What do I do?  A little of each: walking each day, some gentle yoga once or twice a week and chi gung added in—often during walks. But I go easy on it. .” Remember the motto of an effective exercise regime, Ed says: “No pain, no pain,”

So, walking, tai chi, chi gung or yoga. Might such exercise be a secret weapon against the mental ravages of myeloma treatment?  Or could exercise be an elixir against mental dullness in general?

To be honest, just about everyone already knows something of this influence. For instance, on a day when you are closed in, perhaps staring at a computer screen and feeling dull, 20 minutes on an elliptical trainer or a short walk, followed by some gentle yoga stretches and a shower will leave you feeling ready and refreshed.

So, now that you have the information, keep it well. Give up on your excuses and get out there.

Yes Sir!  Magnificent job, Danny.  Thank you.

Feel good and keep smiling!  Pat