Problems with memory and concentration are common following treatment for cancer. They are often called ‘chemo brain’ or ‘chemo fog’ although they aren’t limited to people who have had chemo.
Memory and concentration symptoms may also be experienced following the stress of diagnosis and all types of cancer treatment .
This page will help you to find out more about chemo brain and how to manage it.
What is chemo brain?
Some people notice that they are more forgetful or have trouble concentrating or making decisions after treatment for cancer.
Symptoms may include :
- Difficulty multitasking or concentrating on single tasks ,
- Poor short term memory,
- short attention span,
- Feeling tired
- Feeling confused
- Difficulty finding the right word when talking or writing
- Difficulty completing everyday tasks,
- Finding it hard to learn new skills
- Feeling more disorganised than usual
Although commonly called chemo brain, this can occur after different types of treatment for cancer. Recent research has shown that it may result more from the stress of diagnosis and treatment than the treatment itself.
Cognition is the term for the act of thinking processing and reasoning thinking. The medical term for chemo brain is: mild cognitive dysfunction or impairment
Alongside stress , fluctuating hormone levels and some medication taken during treatment can directly affect your thinking and make you feel sluggish, as can being dehydrated, sleep deprived, poor nutrition, depression, or fatigue (tiredness).
For most people this mental fogginess wears off soon after treatment but for some people it can persist for months afterward and, in a few cases, the fogginess can be permanent.
How can I manage confusion/ memory loss
There is no specific treatment for chemo brain. However, other side effects from treatment eg anaemia, hormone changes, insomnia (difficulty sleeping), depression and stress can also add to its symptoms, and they can be treated.
- Talk to your healthcare team about any difficulties you are having with your memory and concentration. They may do some tests so they can identify other conditions that may be treated directly. Write down the effects on your daily life to help you to remember and explain the symptoms to your Dr/specialist nurse at the appointment
- Exercise can reduce stress, fatigue and depression; recent research has also shown exercise to help improve memory in women treated for breast cancer.
- Hydration: even mild dehydration has been shown to affect memory and concentration so make sure you drink plenty of water (unless you have been told by your Dr to restrict your fluid intake)
- Track and understand: try to identify patterns of when you feel ‘foggy’ eg when you are tired, hungry, rushed, when there is lots of noise or activity around you. Make changes /plan around these times if you need to focus on something.
- Memory aids: use notes, lists and phone alarms for reminders, keep important things like keys in the same place each day. You could ask friends to follow up conversations with emails /text to remind you of things you have said you will do.
- Brain training - doing crossword/sudoku puzzles or brain training exercises may help increase connections in the brain.
- Sleep - Getting enough sleep will help you to feel stronger emotionally and physically.
- Nutrition - Eating healthily can improve mood and fatigue and keep blood sugar levels stable, all of which can help improve memory and concentration. Do let your healthcare team know if you are planning to take any vitamins or supplements as some can interfere with your treatment.
- Reduce stress where you can and do some things you enjoy. relaxation techniques such as meditation and mindfulness can also be helpful.
- Complementary therapies such as herbal medicine and acupuncture have been shown to be helpful in reducing stress and boosting memory and concentration.
- Be honest : hiding memory problems can add to the stress and increase problems with memory and concentration. Let friends and family know that you are having difficulty thinking/remembering things as usual. Say that it is likely to be temporary but that you would appreciate their help in the meantime.
- Keep things manageable: pace yourself, try not to multitask, focus on the task in hand and and simplify things where you can
- Be kind to yourself : try not to dwell on the ‘fogginess’. Remind yourself it is likely to be temporary and that you are doing the best you can
When to seek further help
For most people experiencing problems with memory and concentration will be temporary and you will be able to manage using the strategies above.
If you’re finding that the fogginess is causing you anxiety, affecting your ability to carry out essential tasks or continued for longer than expected, then do let your healthcare team know. Speaking with your GP, hospital Dr, specialist nurse or visiting a Maggie’s Centre, will mean your symptoms can be checked, and you can find out more about support available for you.