Concentration and memory problems

After treatment for breast cancer, some women have difficulties concentrating and remembering things. Doctors call this cognitive impairment. Cognitive means thinking or the way we process information.

People sometimes call this ‘chemobrain’ or ‘chemofog’. But these changes can also happen with other cancer treatments, such as hormonal therapy.

Changes in memory or concentration are usually mild and often get better within a year of finishing treatment. They can occasionally go on for longer or have more of an impact on your day-to-day life.

Here are some examples of the difficulties people describe:

  • difficulty 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
  • not being able to find things
  • difficulty doing more than one thing at a time (multitasking)
  • struggling to find everyday words or phrases.

If you’re having these problems, talk to your doctor about them. They will look for possible causes for your symptoms. They may arrange for you to have tests such as blood tests or a scan. If other factors are linked to your symptoms, treating these 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 affect your memory and concentration.

Feeling extremely tired (fatigue) is a common side effect of cancer treatment. It can cause problems with concentration and memory. Reducing fatigue may help improve these problems.

Anxiety, stress and depression can all cause difficulties with memory and concentration. Treatment to help anxiety or depression may improve your memory and concentration.

Pain or other symptoms can make it difficult to focus on anything else. Having these symptoms treated may improve problems with your concentration.

What you can do

Tell your family and friends about the difficulties you’re having. They can support you and help you find ways of making life easier.

Look after yourself. Get plenty of rest but balance this with regular activity like walking. Being more active improves fatigue and sleep problems. Feeling less tired could improve your concentration and memory.

Some women find activities like yoga, exercise, meditation, reading and complementary therapies helpful. They can relax you and help with anxiety.

Here are some things you can do to improve your symptoms:

  • Keep notes of anything important such as conversations with your doctor or nurse and questions you want to ask them.
  • Have a daily routine and try to stick to it. Try to do one thing at a time. Cut out things that distract you such as background noise when you’re trying to concentrate.
  • Use things to help your memory such as planners, calendars, post-it notes or to-do lists.
  • Keep things in the same place. You’ll know where they are even if you don’t remember putting them there.
  • Put items near the front door beforehand, if you need to take something with you when you leave the house.
  • Use a pill box dispenser if you need to take medicines.
  • Try crosswords, word puzzles or sudoku to help your concentration or do simple arithmetic in your head for things like calculating your change.
  • Keep a diary of times when your concentration or memory problems are worse. You can then plan to do things that require concentration when you’re most likely to be at your best.