Changes to concentrating and learning

Some cancer treatments may affect how well you can concentrate and learn. These treatments include:

  • some types of chemotherapy
  • some other types of medication
  • surgery or radiotherapy to the brain.

Signs of difficulties with concentration and learning can include:

  • difficulty learning new things
  • difficulty doing more than one thing at a time
  • getting distracted more easily
  • finding it hard to remember things
  • feeling like you can’t think clearly
  • feeling tired.

These can be caused by other things. Tell your doctor if you have any of these signs. They can check for other causes that could be treated.

If you are at school, college or university, you could speak to the learning support team about support that’s available. If you are going back to work, speak to your manager. They may be able to make some changes to help.

There are also things you can do to help. Exercise can give you more energy, but balance it with enough rest. You could try some games to exercise your brain and write lists of important things you may forget.

What can cause this?

Doctors don’t know why some people get this. Some types of chemotherapy and medicines may be more likely to cause it than others. You might hear this type of problem called mild cognitive impairment or chemo brain. Brain radiotherapy and surgery can also affect your concentration and learning. But the effects can also happen to people who have not had these treatments.

There may be other causes for these changes. For example, the side effects of medicines, low red blood cells (anaemia) or extreme tiredness caused by treatment. It is important to speak to your doctor or specialist nurse if you are worried about this. They will look at what is causing your difficulties and give you help and advice.


How can it affect me?

Signs of changes to concentration and learning can include:

  • difficulty learning new things
  • difficulty doing more than one thing at a time
  • getting distracted more easily
  • finding it hard to remember things
  • feeling like you can’t think clearly
  • feeling tired.

These changes do not affect everyone who has treatment. They are often mild, and you might only notice them occasionally. Some people may not notice any problems until a while after treatment ends. The changes may be temporary and can improve in time.

It can be frustrating if you can’t do things you used to. It can help to talk to your friends about how you are feeling. They should understand and try to support you.

It might take some time for you to get used to the changes that have happened since your treatment. But you don't have to cope with things on your own. There are people who can help.

Some days I go into school and it's all way over my head – I don't have a clue. I just cannot settle down and concentrate. But I only get that every so often, usually I'm fine.

Chris


What help is available?

If you think you need some extra support, speak to the learning support team at your school, college or university. They will look at what support you need. They may be able to offer help and suggest ways to support your learning. Your doctor or nurse can refer you for an assessment, to help highlight any learning needs.

Even once treatment has finished, you can still speak to your treatment team about ways to cope with any changes. Your doctor or nurse can refer you to other specialists, such as a psychologist or counsellor.

If you are going back to work after treatment, talking to your boss can help. You can ask if they can make any changes to help you. They may be able to adjust your work pattern or give you regular breaks to manage tiredness. We have more information about work and cancer that explains your rights at work.

Your doctor can give you a letter that explains your treatment. You can give this to your school if you are taking exams. Or you could share this with your workplace to help them understand, and make sure you get enough support.

Remember, it can take many months to recover from intensive treatments. So you may need to take things slowly, and not be too hard on yourself.

Things you can try:

  • doing exercise (it can give you more energy and help you feel more awake)
  • doing puzzles or games to help exercise your brain
  • writing lists or post-it notes to help you remember things
  • using your phone calendar for reminders
  • trying not to do too much at one time
  • making sure you get enough sleep.

We have more info about how treatment can affect concentration and learning (mild cognitive impairment). This information is written for people of all ages, not just for young adults. You might also find it helpful to go on our Online Community to talk to people with similar experiences.