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Cognitive Changes

Cancer and cancer treatment can affect your thinking, memory, concentration and behavior. These “cognitive changes” can interfere with your ability to work or perform everyday tasks. It can be very upsetting to realize that your cancer has been successfully treated, but you still do not feel like your old self.

Not everyone will experience cognitive changes. For those who do, changes can be mild or more severe, and often improve with time or treatment. Pay attention to any changes you notice. Ask your family or friends to watch for changes as well. Talk with your doctor or a member of your health care team about these symptoms. Some changes are caused by an underlying condition, which may be treatable.

Whether cognitive changes will improve or be permanent depends on their cause.

  • Acute cognitive changes (delirium) that occur because of certain medicines often improve when you stop taking the medicine.
  • Chronic changes (dementia) are often not reversible, but may be improved if the cause of the problems can be corrected. 

If you notice changes in your thinking, memory or behavior, keep a record of the problems that you have and ask your family or friends to watch for additional problems. Make an appointment to talk to your health care team about these symptoms as soon as possible. Treating the underlying condition often reduces or removes cognitive problems.

Chemo Brain

People often use the expression “chemo brain” to describe mild changes in their ability to think, concentrate or remember during and after cancer treatment. Symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Forgetfulness
  • Confusion 
  • Inability to think clearly or find the right words
  • Difficulty multitasking

Coping with Chemo Brain

These tips can help you cope with mild cognitive changes. Be sure to talk with a health care professional in case there is an underlying condition that can be treated.

  • Tell a family member or friend. Let people know what’s going on so they can support you.
  • Plan your day and schedule things that require the most concentration for when you feel best.
  • Stay organized by taking notes, recording things, using a calendar for important dates and a pillbox for your medication. 
  • ​Make time for physical activity as it can increase mental alertness. 
  • Try to focus on one thing at a time. Whenever possible, avoid having conversations or working in an environment with distractions.
  • Develop routines to stay on top of things.
  • Get enough rest.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Keep moving. Even a few minutes of exercise can be helpful.

Mental Confusion or Delirium

Delirium refers to the state of being very confused. It can come and go throughout the day. Some people with delirium act tired or withdrawn, while others seem agitated or hyper. Delirium is a side effect of certain medicines and generally improves when you stop taking the medicine.

Get in touch with your health care team right away if you think that you or a loved one may be experiencing delirium.