Treatment Side Effects – Memory Problems

In some people, treatments for blood cancer can cause memory or concentration problems, or other cognitive (mental) difficulties. Sometimes these symptoms are referred to as “chemo brain” or brain fog, and while they may be a side effect of chemotherapy, other treatments for blood cancer that can cause cognitive changes include immunotherapies or radiation therapy directed at the brain.1

Memory or concentration problems as a side effect of treatment for blood cancer can occur during treatment or may begin or persist after treatment is finished. Doctors may refer to this as “chemotherapy-induced cognitive impairment.” The severity of cognitive changes varies among different people, and some people only notice small differences where others notice big changes in the way they think, process, or concentrate.1,2

Symptoms of cognitive changes due to blood cancer treatment

Not everyone who receives chemotherapy or other treatments for blood cancer experiences cognitive difficulties. Some examples of the types of cognitive changes that may occur with treatment include:

  • Difficulty concentrating or staying focused on a task
  • Difficulty remembering or frequently forgetting things that used to be easily remembered
  • Forgetting details like names or dates
  • Trouble remembering common words
  • Loss of short-term memory
  • Inability to multitask
  • Taking longer to finish things
  • Trouble processing numbers
  • Difficulty following instructions
  • Trouble with setting or determining priorities
  • Difficulty learning new skills2,3

Most people who experience these types of side effects from their treatment only experience them for a short period of time. However, some people experience ongoing difficulties that may impact their ability to go to school, work, or engage in social activities.3

Why do memory and concentration problems occur?

The exact way that treatments cause cognitive difficulties isn’t fully understood. In addition to being a side effect of treatments like chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or radiation therapy to the brain, the brain’s functioning abilities can also be affected by:

  • Other medications, including those used for pain management or anti-nausea
  • Low blood counts
  • Fatigue
  • Hormone changes
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • The patient’s age
  • Stress
  • Depression3

Managing memory and concentration problems

While research continues to look into the causes and possible treatments for the cognitive changes that occur in cancer treatment, there is currently no way to prevent these side effects. There are several techniques that can help manage memory problems and fogginess caused by blood cancer treatment, such as:

  • Get regular exercise – Exercise helps decrease stress and improve well-being. Some studies have shown exercise can have a positive effect on cognitive functioning (check with your doctor if you have an exercise restriction).
  • Use tools to help – Using a daily planner or a smartphone can be helpful to keep all important information in one place, including phone numbers, medication lists and appointments.
  • Get proper nutrition – Eating a diet rich in nutrients, like those from vegetables, helps support brain function.
  • Using support systems – Leaning on friends and family to help with daily tasks can help patients manage memory problems.
  • Focus on one thing at a time – Avoid multi-tasking, which can be difficult and frustrating when experiencing cognitive impairments.
  • Talking to doctors and nurses – Patients who experience cognitive changes with treatment should discuss their side effects with their healthcare team.1,3,4
Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: February 2018
View References
  1. Memory or concentration problems and cancer treatment, National Cancer Institute. Available at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/memory. Accessed 11/27/17.
  2. Chemobrain, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Available at http://www.lls.org/treatment/managing-side-effects/chemobrain. Accessed 11/27/17.
  3. Chemo brain, American Cancer Society. Available at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/changes-in-mood-or-thinking/chemo-brain.html/. Accessed 11/27/17.
  4. Ahles TA, Root JC, Ryan EL. Cancer- and cancer treatment-associated cognitive change: an update on the state of the science. J Clin Oncol. 2012 Oct 20;30(30):3675-86. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2012.43.0116. Epub 2012 Sep 24.