Concentration and memory after treatment

After cancer treatment for 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 which treatments may cause these problems or whether they are caused by tiredness, stress or depression.

Because changes in concentration and memory were first noticed in people who had had chemotherapy, the terms ‘chemobrain’ or ‘chemofog’ are sometimes used to describe them. But these changes can also happen with other cancer treatments.

Changes in memory or concentration are usually mild and often get better within a year of finishing treatment. Occasionally they can 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 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 and 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 are having these problems, talk to your doctor. They will check if your symptoms are connected to any other causes. This can include the 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. Reducing the fatigue may help improve these problems. You can read more about this in our section on tiredness.

Anxiety, stress and depression can all cause difficulty 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 your symptoms treated may improve problems with concentration.

Managing concentration and memory problems

There are different things you can do to improve your symptoms 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.