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After cancer treatment, some people have difficulties concentrating and remembering things. Doctors call this cognitive impairment.
Cognitive means thinking or the way we process information. Impairment or dysfunction means that something isn’t working.
At the moment it’s not clear which treatments may cause these problems, or whether they may be caused by the cancer itself or by emotions such as anxiety| and depression|.
Because changes in memory and thinking were first noticed in people who’d had chemotherapy|, the terms ‘chemobrain|’, or ‘chemofog’, are sometimes used to describe these changes. However, these terms may be misleading as changes in memory and concentration can also happen in people who have had cancer, but have never had chemotherapy.
Changes in memory or in the ability to concentrate are usually mild and often get better within a year of finishing treatment.
Occasionally these changes can go on for longer or have more marked effects on daily activities.
Here are some examples of the difficulties people describe:
Fatigue| (extreme tiredness) is a common side effect of treatment and can cause problems with concentration and memory. Managing or treating fatigue| may help improve these problems.
Anxiety, stress and depression can all cause difficulty with memory and concentration. These symptoms aren’t unusual in people who’ve had treatment for cancer. They can also affect your sleep and make you feel very tired. Treating these symptoms may help to improve memory and concentration.
If you’re in pain| or have other symptoms, such as feeling sick, it can be difficult to focus on anything else. Having symptoms treated may help improve problems with concentration. If you think that the drugs you’re taking to control your symptoms are affecting your concentration, let your doctor know.
A number of drugs have been tried to help people with cognitive impairment but, as yet, none have definitely proved successful. Research is ongoing to find an effective treatment.
A type of talking therapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which focuses on memory and attention, may be helpful. Your GP can tell you more about this and can refer you for help.
There are different things you can do to improve your symptoms and help you to cope:
Content last reviewed: 1 December 2012
Next planned review: 2014
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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