Breast Cancer and Chemotherapy May Accelerate Physical Decline in Older Women

Following breast cancer treatment, physical decline can occur, particularly in older women. A new study aimed to determine whether this is due to chemotherapy, the cancer itself, or both.

Research recently published in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship investigated the physical function in 444 early-stage breast cancer patients 65 and older who underwent chemo, 98 patients who didn’t, and 100 of their cancer-free peers.

Senior woman goes for walk

Dr. Mina Sedrak, the study’s first author and director of the Cancer and Aging Program at the UCLA Health Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, says, “We have previously shown that chemotherapy can contribute to a decline in physical function in breast cancer survivors, but it wasn’t fully understood if the decline was primarily driven by the cancer, chemotherapy or both. It’s important to have this comparison to determine whether or not this decline represents an acceleration of the aging process itself.”

To better understand any differences, the researchers did baseline tests on the participants before treatment and then did so again 30 days after treatment ended for members of the chemo group, matched at the same time with members of the other groups.

The team found that all had similar scores at baseline, but the chemo group had the most significant decline by the time the second test was performed. In fact, more than 30% of the chemo group experienced a substantial decline in physical function, compared with 8% of the non-chemo group and 5% of the cancer-free group. The issues they most struggled with included climbing several stairs, walking a mile, and performing moderate physical activity.

Senior woman uses walking stick to get upstairs

The findings suggest that the combination of breast cancer and chemo can accelerate physical decline, which may have broad-ranging impacts, as 1 in 8 American women are expected to develop breast cancer in their lifetimes, and the risk goes up the older you get.

Dr. Sedrak says, “Our findings emphasize the impact that cancer and cancer treatment can have on physical function in older women. Physical function is essential for maintaining independence, mobility, and overall quality of life and there needs to be a more urgent effort to develop interventions to develop strategies to preserve physical function for women, before, during and after cancer treatment.”

The team is furthering their research by looking into the impacts of cancer treatment on the aging process, with the hope that they may uncover biological processes that they can target with treatment.

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