Symptoms and Side Effects

Memory and Concentration Problems

Some individuals who receive chemotherapy for the treatment of cancer notice problems with their memory or their attention. These problems can range from things like forgetting where you left your car keys (or your car) or what you planned to pick up at the grocery store to problems doing several things at once and keeping them all straight. People who have suffered from such problems during and after chemotherapy have labeled the condition “chemobrain.”

Research has not yet identified the cause(s) for these difficulties – but several different factors that might be responsible are currently being investigated. The research data that we have so far suggests that about 30% of individuals notice changes in their cognitive functioning during or after treatment with chemotherapy. For the most part, these changes are mild to moderate – but even mild or moderate changes in cognitive functioning can affect the quality of a person’s day-to-day life.

If you are bothered by such changes, there are things you can do to compensate for and even improve your memory, attention and general cognitive functioning. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Use notes, calendars, and planners consistently. Write it down.
  • Organize or structure your daily activities.
  • Organize or categorize the information you want to remember.
  • Use associations or mnemonics to help remember lists.
  • Use more than one sensory modality. For instance, read or write it (visual) and say it out loud (auditory).
  • Be specific (rather than general) about what you want to remember.
  • Use repetition. Practice, practice, practice.

Other very important things to consider if you notice cognitive changes:

  • Rule out any other possible source(s) of memory or concentration problems. The most important (and most common) other possible sources are depression and anxiety. Both depression and anxiety can affect memory and concentration. And both can be treated.
  • Manage your stress (always easier said than done).
    • Meditate regularly.
    • Use visual imagery and/ or relaxation training.
    • Exercise. Any intensity of exercise, even short walks, can improve cognitive functioning and help alleviate stress.
  • Stick to a reasonably regular sleep-wake cycle (also sometimes harder said than done).
  • Try to learn something new (based on the old “use it or loose it” mentality).

Finally, if cognitive problems persist, contact a member of the psychological oncology team for help. One of our psychologists may be able help you better manage your particular cognitive difficulties. Our psychologists can also help you determine whether your memory or concentration problems are due to cancer treatment or to depression or anxiety. If you are depressed or very anxious, treatment of the depression or the anxiety will most often alleviate any cognitive problems. We also can offer more general help in developing relaxation skills.

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