Coping with cognitive changes (chemo brain)

Cognitive changes include problems with memory, concentration and how a person can think. It is also sometimes called cognitive impairment, chemo brain or chemo fog.

Cognitive changes can affect your quality of life, but there are things you can do to try to improve your symptoms and help you cope.

How are cognitive changes diagnosed?

Speak to your doctor or specialist nurse if you have cognitive changes because of cancer or its treatment. They might let you fill out a questionnaire or ask you questions. Or they might refer you to a specialist.

Potential treatments for cognitive changes

There are no established treatments for cognitive changes. Several studies are looking at potential treatments that might help, but we need more research.

Some of the researched treatments include:

Cognitive training

Cognitive training means regularly practising skills to improve:

  • your attention
  • the speed at which you’re doing things
  • your memory
  • executive functioning, meaning your ability to plan, focus attention, remember, and juggle multiple tasks

Physical activity

Physical activity can help with the physical and psychological symptoms of cancer and its treatment. There is some research that shows exercise can help with cognitive changes. We need more research to recommend the:

  • type of exercise
  • level at which you should do it, for example, moderate or vigorous
  • length of an exercise session

Mind-body treatments

Treatments that might help with cognitive changes include:

  • meditation
  • guided imagery
  • mindfulness

Drug treatment

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) recommends trying the above treatments before any drug treatment for cognitive changes. Some of the drugs that studies have looked at include:

  • anti depressants
  • anti dementia drugs

Speak to your doctor or specialist nurse before trying any of these treatments. They might be able to refer you to a specialist. They can teach you skills to help you cope better with cognitive changes.

Tips for coping with cognitive changes (chemo brain)

There are several things that you can do that should help you cope better with these changes: 

  • Try to keep your life as simple as possible.
  • Avoid trying to do too many things at the same time.
  • It might be helpful to write notes and stick them up where you can see them.
  • Write lists about what you need to do, things you need to buy and where you have left important things.
  • Try to do the most difficult tasks earlier in the day.
  • When you are away from home, it might help to carry a notebook to write things down or put them in your phone.
  • Before your appointment, write a list of questions and things you want to talk about.
  • Keep a record of your previous hospital appointments and planned appointments.
  • You could ask if you can record conversations with your doctor if this might help.
  • When arranging to meet someone or organising an event, it may be helpful to write the details down and tell someone else.
  • Try to talk to people somewhere quiet with few distractions.
  • You could keep a calendar on your wall or use the calendar on your phone.
  • Try to follow a healthy diet.
  • Aim to get a good night's sleep and rest in the day when you need to – try to avoid becoming over tired.
  • Try to exercise each day if possible. This can help you to sleep and lift your mood.
  • Keeping your mind active may help – for example, doing crosswords, sudoku and puzzles.

It might help to tell those around you about your problems with thinking and concentration. They might have noticed some changes already. If family and friends are aware, they can help you with some of the above tips,

You might find some activities or tasks too stressful right now. It might help to avoid these things altogether if possible. Your family and friends can help with this. You may only have to do this for a short time until you feel more able to cope. 

Further support

Talk to your doctor or nurse if you have cognitive changes and are finding it difficult. They might be able to refer you to a specialist to help you.

People with cognitive problems might also experience anxiety and depression. Counselling might help with this. Your GP might be able to refer you to a counsellor. Or there might be local services or charities you can contact.

  • Long-Term Cognitive Dysfunction in Cancer Survivors

    Z Országhová and others

    Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences, 2021 December. Volume 14, Issue 8, Page: 770413

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

Last reviewed: 
26 Jun 2023
Next review due: 
26 Jun 2026

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