Concentration and memory after treatment

After cancer treatment for a head and neck cancer, some people have difficulty concentrating and remembering things. Doctors call this cognitive impairment. Cognitive means thinking or the way we process information. At the moment, it is not clear if certain treatments cause these problems, or if they are caused by tiredness, stress or depression.

The terms chemo brain or chemo fog are sometimes used to describe these changes. This is because changes in concentration and memory were first noticed in people who had chemotherapy. But these changes can also happen with other cancer treatments.

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

Here are some examples of difficulties with concentration and memory that 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 that you would 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 (multi-tasking).
  • Struggling to remember everyday words or phrases.

If you are having these problems, talk to your doctor. They will look for any other possible causes for your symptoms. This can include side effects of medicines that you may be taking for tiredness, pain or depression. Treating these things can help. They may arrange for you to have tests, such as blood tests or a scan.

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

Anxiety, stress and depression can all cause problems with memory and concentration. Pain or other symptoms can also make it difficult to focus on anything else. Treating these symptoms may improve problems with your concentration.

Managing concentration and memory problems

Here are some things you can do to improve your memory and concentration and help you cope:

  • Use a pill box dispenser if you need to take medicines.
  • Use planners, calendars, post-it notes or to-do lists.
  • Write down anything important.
  • Have a daily routine. Try to do one thing at a time and keep things in the same place.
  • Try brain exercises like crosswords, word puzzles or sudoku to help improve your concentration.
  • Get plenty of rest but try to balance this with some physical activity.