Memory & concentration problems

Throughout treatment for secondary breast cancer, some women notice changes in their memory and ability to concentrate. These are known as ‘cancer related cognitive changes or ‘chemo brain’. Though they are usually mild, these symptoms can have a significant impact on your confidence and ability to go about your daily life.

In this section

Causes of cancer related cognitive changes

Cancer related cognitive changes are very commonly experienced, though their exact cause remains unclear. It was previously thought that they were due to the effects of chemotherapy (therefore referred to as ‘chemo brain’), though we now know that a wide range of other treatments, including hormone therapy and radiotherapy, can lead to these symptoms.

The psychological and emotional effects of cancer may also have a part to play, as well as other cancer related side effects such as tiredness, fatigue, anaemia (low red blood cell count) and the effects of menopause.

Symptoms

As well as difficulty concentrating and problems with your memory, you may also notice:

  • Difficulty focusing or thinking clearly.
  • Struggling to ‘multi-task’ or do more than one thing at once.
  • Feeling less organised or less able to organise .
  • Becoming easily distracted.
  • Feeling very tired or fatigued.
  • Struggling to think of a word or finish your sentences.
  • Taking longer to do everyday tasks.

Though it is difficult to prevent these symptoms from happening or treating an exact cause, there are lots of things you can do to help you to cope.

Tips for coping with cancer related cognitive changes

Write things down. Keeping a diary, noting things down on a calendar, setting reminders on your phone, writing yourself notes and making lists are all simple ways you can help yourself to remember things and to stay organised. It may also help to carry a notebook with you, or to make notes on your phone about conversations or appointments you’ve had or any plans you have made.

Exercise your brain. Performing mental exercises or ‘brain training’ (e.g. crosswords, sudoku puzzles or brain training mobile applications) can help to improve your memory and concentration by keeping your mind active.

Look after yourself. Both your mental and physical well-being are important for your cognitive functioning. Eating a balanced diet, drinking plenty of water and taking regular exercise can help you to feel more alert and focused. Stress, low mood and anxiety can all affect your memory and concentration. Relaxation and other complementary therapies and practices such as mindfulness and yoga can all help you to look after your mental health and improve symptoms of cancer related cognitive changes. Please also see our section on Psychological well-being and our self-management advice on low mood and anxiety for further information and guidance.

Adapt your routine. If you are struggling to cope with the demands of your daily routine, try to adapt it so that it works better for you. Make time for rest and breaks, ask for support from family and friends and, if possible, cut back on the amount of things your try to fit in to your day.

Don’t struggle alone. Don’t feel embarrassed or worried to discuss these symptoms with your doctor (or, if you have one, your breast cancer nurse). They are very commonly experienced and your medical team will be able to offer guidance and support on how to manage them. They may also be able to find other treatable symptoms which could be worsening your cognitive changes (e.g. anaemia or low red blood cell count).

Macmillan and Breast Cancer Now both have a wide range of information and advice relating to cancer related cognitive changes.

Disclaimer: on this website you will find self-management advice to help you to manage a range of mild symptoms and side effects of secondary breast cancer and its treatment. Please ONLY use this advice if you are currently participating in the LIBERATE study. Otherwise, please follow the advice of your own healthcare team.

Page last updated: April 2020