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After treatment for breast cancer| some women have difficulty concentrating and remembering things. Doctors call these cognitive problems.
Cognitive means how we think and process our thoughts. We’re not sure what causes these cognitive effects although research is being carried out. The symptoms are often linked with chemotherapy| so the terms ‘chemobrain’, or ‘chemofog’ are used to describe them. But chemotherapy isn’t the single cause of concentration and memory problems and other factors may be involved.
Chemobrain is usually mild and often gets better within a year of finishing treatment|. Occasionally it can go on for longer or have more of an impact on people’s daily lives.
The symptoms may be more noticeable at the end of your treatment when you’re trying to get back to day to day life. Women can find this frustrating and worrying. But it’s common to feel tired at this time and this can make your problems worse.
Here are some examples of the difficulties people describe:
If you’re having these problems it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about them. They will check if your symptoms are connected to any other causes. This can include the cancer itself, or the side effects of other treatments or medicines that you may be taking. Your doctors may decide to do some tests, such as blood tests or a scan, to investigate it further. There may also be other factors contributing to your symptoms and having these treated could help.
Early menopause| or going into menopause suddenly because of treatment, may result in similar symptoms or make them worse.
Hormonal therapies|, such as tamoxifen| and aromatase inhibitors (anastrozole|, letrozole| and exemestane|) may also have an effect on memory and concentration.
This is a common side effect of treatment and can cause similar problems with concentration and memory. Managing or treating fatigue| may help improve these problems.
These can all cause difficulty with memory and concentration. These symptoms aren’t unusual in women who’ve had treatment for breast 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 your symptoms treated may help improve problems with concentration. If you think the drugs you are taking to control your symptoms are affecting your concentration let your doctor know.
Some stimulant drugs such as dexmethylphenidate (prescribed for children with attention deficit disorder) and drugs used to treat sleep problems have been tried. But we don’t know enough about them yet.
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 June 2010
Next planned review: 2013
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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