Memory problems/learning difficulties (“chemo-brain”)

As many as three out of every four cancer patients experience some form of memory or thinking problems during treatment. Of those, The American Society of Clinical Oncology notes that more than one-third of them will continue to have cognitive problems after finishing treatment.

What causes this? It can be due to:

  • The type of cancer treatment you received. It’s well documented that chemotherapy can result in memory loss and trouble in concentrating. Doctors and patients even have coined a name for it — “chemo-brain.” In addition to chemotherapy, radiation and some types of hormone therapy also can produce similar problems with memory and organization.
  • Medications you are prescribed. Some have side effects that include impaired concentration and memory loss.
  • A medical condition such as anemia or an electrolyte imbalance.
  • Lack of sleep or emotional distress. Both can negatively impact memory and concentration.

Cognitive problems can be managed in a wide variety of ways, including medications, occupational therapy and cognitive rehabilitation. You also may find these simple coping and brain-strengthening strategies effective:

  • Carry a notepad to jot down reminders and to-do lists.
  • Place commonly used items in the same location so you can easily find them again. For example, hang your car keys in the same place every day.
  • Play brain games, such as crossword or Sudoku puzzles.
  • Try a new hobby — such as painting, knitting or playing a musical instrument — to spark memory retention with something you enjoy.
  • Be physically active every day. Walking, swimming, yoga, even gardening can be beneficial to increasing mental alertness.

Talk with your doctor about any lingering memory or other cognitive problems you may have and learn more about effective treatment options. Also, through Washington University’s Program in Occupational Therapy, we have specialists who can help you cope with short-term memory loss. Talk with your doctor about a referral to our program. For more information call 314-286-1669 or visit