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The Double Whammy of Dementia and Cancer

The Double Whammy of Dementia and Cancer
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Published on July 14, 2020

The Double Whammy of Dementia and Cancer

When my mom was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), my sister Kim immediately bought a notebook so we could write everything down. Although I’d been writing about cancer for many years, being immersed in it from a personal perspective was overwhelming. I learned first-hand what “team science” means.

Team science is a joint effort that includes experts from different fields and hospitals giving their evidence-based opinions about treatment options. Ideally, it also includes the family. When I couldn’t be there with my mom and dad, Kim was there. Sometimes our brothers came too, and we were all in the Philadelphia hospital at the same time.

NHL treatment often involves chemotherapy, and sometimes stem cell transplants. My mom’s medical team thought a stem cell transplant was right for her, so we learned all about the immune system, the importance of infection control and the vital role of care partners.

Being the Patient’s Eyes and Ears

My mom Sue, 67, was in a medically induced coma for a few weeks of treatment and so we were her eyes and ears, listening to the myriad options and agreeing to treatment plans.

Knowing that many cancer diagnoses occur in people over the age of 60 and are combined with other ailments, I started to wonder how patients with dementia or cognitive deficits struggle to understand what is happening to them. Fortunately, my mom didn’t have dementia, but an estimated 5.8 million Americans age 65 and older are currently living with a type of dementia.1 Causes of dementia include Alzheimer's Disease, traumatic brain injury, vascular cognitive impairment, Huntington's Disease and more. The symptoms of dementia are memory loss, difficulty finding words, getting lost while driving, and struggles with planning and organizing.

For people who have been through cancer treatment, they may have already experienced some of the cognitive side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, which are temporary and sometimes called “chemo brain”. While not related to dementia, patients with chemo brain may have similar symptoms such as a foggy brain, confusion, irritability, memory loss and more. Having a care partner or advocate is essential.

Mom Was Right... Eat Your Veggies

When I was a kid, my mom’s healthy eating recommendation was simple. She said, “eat the rainbow” and “eat real food.” Her basic premise was that if we ate a colorful variety of fruits, veggies, and nuts, we wouldn’t need to supplement our diet with lots of “to go” foods that one sees shelf after shelf of at the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong, she allowed some junk food — ice cream, in particular, is still a family favorite.

Countless studies have shown that dietary intake can stave off some of the cognitive declines that many will experience as the number of candles on the birthday cake increase each year.2 Exercise is also our brain’s friend. Keeping our brains and bodies active is beneficial for our emotional and physical well-being, and it doesn’t have to be overly complex. No need to sign up for a marathon if you’re not into running. Walking is just as good. And my favorite, swimming, because it’s easy on the joints. The key is to find an activity you enjoy.

What You Can Do

  • Take a trusted care partner to each appointment.
  • Have the care partner keep a journal of food, exercise, treatments, and medications.
  • Ask for a patient navigator to be assigned to you, to help walk you through your cancer journey, including insurance issues.

Being your own advocate or a care partner for a loved one is an important job, and Patient Power is here to help you along the way. Seeking more information? Sign up for e-news about Navigating Cancer or one of our cancer-specific health centers.

~Lauren Evoy Davis


1Dementia Statistics. Alzheimer's Disease International.
2Fuller-Thomson, E, et al. Nutrition, Immigration and Health Determinants are Linked to Verbal Fluency among Anglophone Adults in the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA). J Nutr Health Aging. 24, 672–680 (2020)

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