Memory and thinking changes

Many cancer survivors say they have difficulty concentrating, focusing and remembering things. This is called cancer-related cognitive impairment. Other terms used to describe this include “chemo brain” and “cancer fog”.

Researchers still aren’t sure exactly what causes the memory and concentration changes experienced by some cancer survivors, but there is ongoing research to try to find out.

Memory and thinking changes may be caused by:

  • the cancer itself
  • cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, hormone therapy, surgery and anaesthesia
  • medicines such as steroids, anti-nausea drugs or pain-killers
  • fatigue and sleep problems
  • emotional concerns, such as stress, anxiety or depression
  • infections
  • vitamin or mineral deficiencies (e.g. iron, vitamin B, folic acid)
  • other health problems, including anaemia
  • tumours, cancer or metastases in the brain
  • ageing.

These problems usually improve with time, although for some people it may take a year or more to see improvements. Tell your doctor about any memory or thinking problems you are having. Ask for a referral to a health care professional such as an occupational therapist who can advise you on strategies to overcome these difficulties and improve memory.

Listen to a podcast on Brain Fog and Cancer

Managing memory and thinking problems

  • Get plenty of sleep. Deep sleep is important for memory and concentration.
  • Do some gentle exercise, including strength training, each day to help you feel more alert.
  • A psychologist can help with a cognitive training program. These mental exercises may help improve thinking, memory and concentration.
  • Some people find puzzles and brain training apps helpful.
  • Use your mobile phone, calendar or daily planner to keep track of appointments, tasks, social commitments, birthdays, etc.
  • Plan activities so you do things that require more concentration when you are more alert. You may find it helpful to have a daily schedule.
  • Discuss these problems with your partner, family or workplace and ask for their support or assistance.
  • Do tasks one at a time rather than multi-tasking.
  • Set aside time each day to read and respond to emails.
  • Let phone calls go straight to your answering machine or voicemail. You can listen to them when ready and prepare how you will respond.
  • If you are working and have your own office, close the door when you don’t want to be interrupted.
  • Carry a small notepad or download an app to your phone so you can jot down things you need to remember.
  • Before your appointments, write down a list of items you would like to discuss. Don’t be afraid to write down notes during the appointment or to take a support person with you.
  • Put personal items (e.g. wallet, keys) in a dedicated place at home and at work so you can find them easily.

This information was last reviewed in April 2018
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