Diet and cognitive function in cancer survivors with cancer-related cognitive impairment: A qualitative study

Objective: To identify cancer survivors’ perceptions of the role diet plays in their cognitive function, and how their cancer-related cognitive changes influence their diet.

Methods: Cancer survivors diagnosed with cancer in the past 5 years, not on active treatment, and with self-reported cognitive changes since diagnosis were recruited from the general population. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 15 Australian breast (n = 13) and colorectal (n = 2) survivors (mean time since diagnosed: 27.0 months ± SD=16.8). Questions related to how their diet and cognitive changes influenced each other. Interviews were recorded, and transcripts were analysed using thematic analysis.

Results: Four themes related to how diet impacted cognition: (a) directly (e.g. healthy diet improves cognition), (b) indirectly (e.g. diet affects tiredness which affects cognition); (c) no impact; and (d) potentially (e.g. poorer diet quality would worsen cognition). Three themes emerged for how cognitive changes were thought to impact survivors’ diets: (a) planning meals is harder; (b) cooking is more difficult and complex; and, (c) choosing healthy is more challenging.

Conclusions: Many cancer survivors perceived a bidirectional influence between diet and cognition that has cognitive and behavioural consequences. Diet could be investigated as a modifiable lifestyle behaviour to improve cancer-related cognitive impairment and fatigue. Survivors may benefit from dietary guidance with meal planning and preparing.

Keywords: cancer survivor; cancer-related cognitive impairment; cognition; diet; qualitative.