Concentration and memory problems

After treatment for breast cancer some women have difficulties concentrating and remembering things. At the moment, it's not clear which treatments may cause these problems, or whether they may be caused by the cancer itself, by physical changes such as long-term tiredness (chronic fatigue), or by emotions such as anxiety and depression.

Doctors call difficulties in concentrating and remembering things cognitive impairment. Cognitive means thinking or the way we process information. Impairment or dysfunction means that something isn't working.

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 them. But these terms may be misleading as changes in memory and concentration can also happen in people who have had cancer but who 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. But occasionally, they can go on for longer or have more marked effects on daily activities.

Here are some examples of the difficulties people describe:

  • difficulty in concentrating and focusing (feeling foggy)
  • feeling mentally slower than before and finding it hard to take things in
  • forgetting details of conversations or events you'd usually have no problem remembering
  • mixing up dates and appointments and not being able to find things easily
  • difficulty doing more than one thing at a time (multitasking)
  • struggling to find everyday words or phrases.

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.

We have more information about the menopause and coping with menopausal symptoms. Hormonal therapies, such as tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors (anastrozole, letrozole and exemestane) may also have an effect on memory and concentration.

Fatigue (extreme tiredness) 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.

Anxiety, stress and depression 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. Some painkillers such as morphine can cause drowsiness. If you think the drugs you are taking to control your symptoms are affecting your concentration let your doctor know.

We have more information on managing concentration and memory problems.