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Memory or Concentration Problems and Cancer Treatment

Person with cancer writing down important information in a notebook.

If treatment makes it hard to concentrate, talk with your nurse to get tips on how to keep track of important information.

Credit: iStock

Whether you have memory or concentration problems (sometimes described as a mental fog or chemo brain) depends on the type of treatment you receive, your age, and other health-related factors. Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy may cause difficulty with thinking, concentrating, or remembering things. So can some types of radiation therapy to the brain and immunotherapy.

These cognitive problems may start during or after cancer treatment. Some people notice very small changes, such as a bit more difficulty remembering things, whereas others have much greater memory or concentration problems.

Your doctor will assess your symptoms and advise you about ways to manage or treat these problems. Treating conditions such as poor nutrition, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and insomnia may also help.

Ways to manage memory or concentration problems

It’s important for you or a family member to tell your health care team if you have difficulty remembering things, thinking, or concentrating. Here are some steps you can take to manage minor memory or concentration problems:

  • Plan your day. Do things that need the most concentration at the time of day when you feel best. Get extra rest and plenty of sleep at night. If you need to rest during the day, short naps of less than 1 hour are best. Long naps can make it more difficult to sleep at night. Keep a daily routine.
  • Exercise your body and mind. Exercise can help to decrease stress and help you to feel more alert. Exercise releases endorphins, also known as "feel-good chemicals,"which give people a feeling of well-being. Ask what light physical exercises may be helpful for you. Mind–body practices such as meditation or mental exercises such as puzzles or games also help some people.
  • Get help to remember things. Write down and keep a list handy of important information. Use a daily planner, recorder, or other electronic device to help you remember important activities. Make a list of important names and phone numbers. Keep it in one place so it’s easy to find.

Talking with your health care team about memory or concentration problems

It’s important for you or a family member to talk with your doctor or nurse about any memory or cognitive changes you may have. Prepare for your visit by making a list of questions to ask. Consider adding these questions to your list:

  • Am I at increased risk of cognitive problems based on the treatment I am receiving?
  • When might these problems start to occur? How long might they last?
  • Are there steps I can take to decrease these problems?
  • What symptoms or other problems should I, or a family member, call you about?
  • Could I meet with a social worker to get ideas about additional support and resources?
  • Are there specialists who could assess, treat, or advise me on these problems (such as a neuropsychologist, an occupational therapist, a vocational therapist, and others)?