Dr. Sanne Schagen of the Netherlands Cancer Institute
(NKI) is one of the two awardees of the Koningin Wilhelmina
Onderzoeksprijs (KWO prize) 2016. This is the most important award
for cancer research in The Netherlands, issued by the Dutch Cancer
Society (KWF Kankerbestrijding). The prize comes with a research
grant of 2 million Euro. Schagen will use this to study the long
term cognitive effects of cancer treatments.
Schagen joined the NKI twenty years ago as a researcher and
clinical neuropsychologist. Around the time of her graduation, it
was discovered that cancer patients sometimes suffer from cognitive
problems long after their treatment has been finished. This caught
Schagen's attention, so she decided to join the research group of
NKI psychologist Frits van Dam. Over the years, Schagen helped to
develop a whole new field of research focused on cognitive problems
after cancer treatment. Since 2008 she heads her own research group
within the NKI division of Psychosocial Research and
Memory and concentration problems
"In the past decades we discovered that a lot of cancer patients
can develop cognitive problems, but the causes vary widely", says
Schagen. "Most patients only suffer from these problems during the
course their treatment. But a small group of patients still has
problems with, for instance, their memory or concentration five or
even ten years after their treatment."
Schagen offers a few common examples: "Some people can no longer
concentrate on their work as well as they used to, or they become
forgetful. It also happens that people find it hard to keep track
of multi-person conversations during meetings. Something else I
often come across is that people find it hard to handle new
technology; for instance figuring out how their new cell phone
works. These things can lead to a lot of stress and frustration.
People are happy to have left their disease behind them, and want
to function normally again. But they don't always succeed in this,
or it costs them a lot of mental energy."
At the moment it is still very hard to predict which patients
will develop long term cognitive problems after their cancer
treatment. This is one of the things Schagen hopes to clear up with
the grant of the KWO prize. She also wants to investigate how
different cancer treatments influence the brain, or in other words,
try to find the biological mechanism behind this phenomenon.
Finally, she will also look for solutions, for instance in the form
of drugs or interventions like memory training.
Improving quality of life
Schagen: "Because cancer treatments have improved so much during
the past few decades, more and more cancer patients survive.
Therefore there is now starting to become more attention for life
after cancer. I am very grateful that the Dutch Cancer Society
gives me this opportunity to investigate how we can further improve
the quality of life of former cancer patients."