Kathy Windmoeller didn’t miss more than two and a half weeks of work for her chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer five years ago. She continued to work 40-hour weeks as a cytotechnologist for University Hospital throughout the six months she received intravenous chemotherapy treatments.
But there were some things that slowed her down.
She wasn’t able to concentrate when she sat down to read a book. She would misplace her keys or lock herself out of the house from time to time. Little things, Windmoeller called them, but nonetheless, things she attributes to her chemotherapy treatment.
“I pretty much do everything now that I did before,” Windmoeller said.
But that is far from perfect. Such quality-of-life issues are becoming increasingly important in cancer treatment. Beginning in September, three MU professors will study how chemotherapy treatment prevents breast cancer survivors from getting back to their normal lives.
Finding specific and concrete examples of the problems that come as a result of chemotherapy is the goal of the study, said Stephanie Reid-Arndt, lead investigator and clinical assistant professor in the department of health psychology. She will be particularly interested in learning more about “chemobrain,” the decreased cognitive functioning that may come from chemotherapy or from the cancer itself.
Impaired memory, decreased concentration and learning difficulties are some ways in which chemotherapy patients have experienced chemobrain. Reid-Arndt said the phenomenon has been documented in earlier studies, but this study will be one of the first studies to look at specific ways it affects cancer survivors.
“We know we have some changes in cognitive functioning. What does that mean in terms of daily life?” said Reid-Arndt.
She also looks forward to being able to give anyone going through the experience an idea of what it might be like.
For Windmoeller, whose chemotherapy treatment was five years ago, there was little or no information available to her.
“I think the fear of the unknown is worse than anything about the whole experience. So the more that you know ahead of time and that you can be prepared for and realize that, you know, this is something that’s normal, then you’re not going to be as scared,” Windmoeller said.
The 75 volunteers will be recruited from chemotherapy patients at the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center at the beginning of the study. Volunteers will be evaluated one, six and 12 months after they complete their chemotherapy treatments. The three-part series of evaluations will assess volunteers’ cognitive functioning by a series of tests, while self-report questionnaires will look at their ability to perform social roles at home, work and in the community.
“We look at the women who don’t make it back to work and figure out factors that might be contributing to that,” Reid-Arndt said.
The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, focuses on a broad array of factors that will serve as a foundation for more specific research later.
Included will be a glimpse at how environmental factors, like living in urban or rural areas, might affect rehabilitation. Co-investigator George Johnstone, chair of the health psychology department at MU, has studied these same factors in studies of vocational rehabilitation for persons with traumatic brain injuries. He and Reid-Arndt hope the study will lead to new ways for cancer survivors to improve their recoveries by using community agencies like the Missouri Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Johnstone believes the study is something new because it won’t look at the immediate and physical effects of cancer treatment. “There’s been minimal work on the long-term consequences for cancer survivors,” said Johnstone.
Michael Perry, chair of the department of hematology and oncology, also worked as co-investigator for the study “Predicting Positive Outcomes Among Cancer Survivors: Individual and social/environmental factors.”