<< Back

Can Cancer Treatment Cause Memory Problems?

September 20, 2023

After a cancer diagnosis, you might expect some level of distraction, or trouble concentrating on everyday tasks. But is that just a natural response to a traumatic event, or is there more to it?

According to Evan Fox, MD, a psycho-oncologist at Hartford Hospital, there might be another explanation.

Struggling with a cancer diagnosis?

Start hereCall 855.255.6181

“Chemo brain” is real, and it affects more people than you might think.

If you feel like your cancer treatment leaves you in a mental fog, you’re not alone.

“It depends who you ask, but anywhere from 70-75% of people receiving cancer treatment will have complaints related to chemo brain,” says Dr. Fox.

Caused by chemotherapy and radiation, “chemo brain” can weaken your cognitive abilities during cancer treatment. For many, the effects are relatively minor, but others experience a significant impact on their quality of life.

Common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Challenges with short-term memory
  • Problems finding words
  • Difficulty organizing your day or multitasking

And cancer fatigue syndrome adds to that as well.

“A cancer diagnosis is overwhelming, and it can take a lot out of you,” says Dr. Fox. “Fatigue isn’t only physical – it can be mental, too. That can cause (or exacerbate) some of the same symptoms.”

> Related: Exercise Is Medicine for Cancer Survivors

But the good news is, it probably isn’t permanent.

For the most part, chemo brain goes away once you’ve finished your course of treatment. But it might not happen immediately.

“Just because you stop therapy doesn’t mean this will end right away,” says Dr. Fox. “There’s often a lag time between ending chemo or radiation and seeing these effects disappear.”

Dr. Fox reminds patients that with their treatment in the rear view, they can start to focus on exercise and nutrition again. “As your physical strength returns, your mental strength comes with it,” he adds.

For about 30% of people who suffer from chemo brain, there can be lasting effects. If it’s impacting your quality of life, don’t hesitate to talk to your oncologist.

“There are plenty of treatment options available. There are temporary pharmaceutical interventions that might be helpful, but an even more common option is psychoeducation. This form of therapy will help you understand your symptoms, and can actually help you relieve them,” says Dr. Fox.

Want more health news? Text StartHere to 85209 to sign up for text alerts

And it doesn’t increase your risk for Alzheimer’s or dementia, either.

“There’s nothing to suggest that cognitive difficulties related to chemo or radiation will increase your dementia risk,” Dr. Fox notes.

But remember, aging doesn’t wait for cancer.

“Chemo and radiation may not cause dementia, but it’s important to remember that they could emerge at the same time,” Dr. Fox adds. “When a cancer treatment becomes the focus, it’s easy to forget that you’re aging anyways. These things can happen regardless.”

The takeaway? Whatever’s going on with your cognitive function, don’t suffer in silence. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, consult your oncologist.