- Cancer Information
- Living well
- Living well after cancer
- Coping with side effects
- Memory and thinking changes
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
- vitamin or mineral deficiencies (e.g. iron, vitamin B, folic acid)
- other health problems, including anaemia
- tumours, cancer or metastases in the brain
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.
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.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Dr Haryana Dhillon, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Medical Psychology & Evidence-based Decision-making, School of Psychology, University of Sydney, NSW; Polly Baldwin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Jessica Barbon, Dietitian, Southern Adelaide Health Network, SA; Dr Anna Burger, Liaison Psychiatrist and Senior Staff Specialist, Psycho-oncology Clinic, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, ACT; Elizabeth Dillon, Social Worker, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Prof Paul Glare, Chair in Pain Medicineand Director, Pain Management Research Institute, University of Sydney, NSW; Nico le Kinnane, Nurse Coordinator, Gynaecology Services, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Amanda Piper, Manager, Australian Cancer Survivorship Centre, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Kyle Smith, Exercise Medicine Research Institute, Edith Cowan University, WA; Aaron Tan, Consumer; Dr Kate Webber, Medical Oncologist and Research Director, National Centre for Cancer Survivorship, NSW. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
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