Purpose: Adjuvant chemotherapy for breast cancer can have adverse effects on cognition shortly after administration. Whether chemotherapy has any long-term effects on cognition is largely unknown, yet it becomes increasingly relevant because of the widespread use of chemotherapy for early-stage breast cancer and the improved survival. We investigated whether cyclophosphamide, methotrexate, and fluorouracil (CMF) chemotherapy for breast cancer is associated with worse cognitive performance more than 20 years after treatment.
Patients and methods: This case-cohort study compared the cognitive performance of patients with breast cancer who had a history of adjuvant CMF chemotherapy treatment (six cycles; average time since treatment, 21 years; n = 196) to that of a population-based sample of women never diagnosed with cancer (n = 1,509). Participants were between 50 and 80 years of age. Exclusion criteria were ever use of adjuvant endocrine therapy, secondary malignancy, recurrence, and/or metastasis.
Results: The women exposed to chemotherapy performed significantly worse than the reference group on cognitive tests of immediate (P = .015) and delayed verbal memory (P = .002), processing speed (P < .001), executive functioning (P = .013), and psychomotor speed (P = .001). They experienced fewer symptoms of depression (P < .001), yet had significantly more memory complaints on two of three measures that could not be explained by cognitive test performance.
Conclusion: Survivors of breast cancer treated with adjuvant CMF chemotherapy more than 20 years ago perform worse, on average, than random population controls on neuropsychological tests. The pattern of cognitive problems is largely similar to that observed in patients shortly after cessation of chemotherapy. This study suggests that cognitive deficits following breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent CMF chemotherapy can be long lasting.