National Cancer Institute
Post Date: Sep 18, 2023
Cognitive impairment (problems with memory and thinking) is often reported by people with cancer and survivors and is sometimes called "chemobrain" or "chemofog.” Get detailed information about cognitive impairment and treatment in this expert-reviewed summary.
Cognitive Impairment in Adults with Cancer
General Information About Cognitive Problems in Cancer Survivors
Key Points for this Section
- Cognition problems can change the way you think and learn.
- Memory loss and thinking problems are common in people with cancer and cancer survivors.
Cognition problems can change the way you think and learn.
Cognition is the process of how you learn, remember, and become aware of what is around you.
This process includes being able to do the following:
- Focus on important information, thoughts, and actions.
- Pay attention to a task or activity for a long period of time.
- Predict what may happen, plan, and solve problems.
- Learn quickly.
- Have a sense of where objects are around you.
- Understand and communicate by speaking and writing.
- Learn and remember new information.
When your cognition changes, you may have problems with daily tasks.
Memory loss and thinking problems are common in people with cancer and cancer survivors.
Your thought process may change, and it may be hard for you to focus and remember things the same way as you did before your cancer treatment.
Talk to your doctor about memory loss and thinking problems you have during or after treatment.
Signs of Cognitive Problems
Key Points for this Section
- Signs of cognitive problems include trouble learning or remembering.
- Cancer treatments or other diseases may cause cognitive problems.
- Your doctor will examine you to better understand your cognitive problems.
Signs of cognitive problems include trouble learning or remembering.
Other conditions may also cause cognitive problems. Talk to your doctor if you have memory loss or are unable to do the following:
- Focus on what you are doing.
- Complete tasks.
- Understand what people are saying.
- Remember names and common words.
- Recognize familiar objects.
- Follow instructions.
- Manage your money well. For example, you may have trouble paying bills or balancing your checkbook.
You may also notice the following changes:
- Disorganized behavior or thinking.
- Loss of interest.
- Problems making sense of the world around you.
Cancer treatments or other diseases may cause cognitive problems.
- Older age.
- Being weak or frail.
- Cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, or other medications, and their side effects.
- Being postmenopausal.
- Distress, such as anxiety or depression.
- Symptoms, such as pain, fatigue, or trouble sleeping.
- Other diseases or conditions.
- Using alcohol or other substances that change your mental state.
- The stage of the cancer (the size of the tumor, and whether it has spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body).
- Higher levels of certain proteins in the blood.
Your doctor will examine you to better understand your cognitive problems.
Treatment of Cognitive Problems
Key Points for this Section
- Treatment of cognitive problems may include activities that help your attention, memory, and thinking.
- Cognitive rehabilitation
- Movement therapy
- Attention restoration
- Certain drugs are being studied to treat cognitive problems.
Treatment of cognitive problems may include activities that help your attention, memory, and thinking.
The goal of cognitive rehabilitation is to improve your memory and the way you think, organize, and make decisions. Cognitive rehabilitation involves the following:
- Learning ways to take in new information and perform new tasks or behaviors.
- Staying organized by using tools, such as calendars or electronic diaries.
- Doing activities over and over, usually on a computer, that become more challenging over time.
Activities that restore attention may help you stay focused on what is around you. These activities may include walking, gardening, bird-watching, and caring for pets.
Meditation may help improve cognitive function. Meditation is a mind–body practice in which a person focuses his or her attention on something, such as an object, word, phrase, or breathing. This will help keep you from being distracted or having stressful thoughts or feelings. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a type of meditation that focuses on bringing attention and awareness to each moment.
Certain drugs are being studied to treat cognitive problems.
Several drugs have been studied to treat cognitive problems in people who have or who have had cancer, such as psychostimulants and erythropoietin-stimulating agents, but results are mixed. More research is needed.
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Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about expert-reviewed information summary about causes and management of cognitive impairment in people with cancer. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
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Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
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PDQ® Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board. PDQ Cognitive Impairment in Adults with Cancer. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated
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