Coping with cognitive changes (chemo brain)

Cognitive changes refer to problems with memory, concentration and the way a person is able to think. It is also sometimes called cognitive impairment or chemo brain.

There are no established treatments for cognitive changes. Research is looking at possible treatments that might help. But there are things you can do to try to improve your symptoms and help you cope.

Tips for coping with cognitive changes (chemo brain)

There are a number of 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 yourself 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 you think 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 the problems you are having 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 think you have cognitive changes and you 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.

Some people might find relaxation techniques or approaches like mindfulness helpful. There has not been enough research to suggest that mindfulness can help cognitive impairment. But these techniques might help you to feel better and more able to cope with your situation,

  • Chemotherapy and Cognitive Function in Breast Cancer Patients: The So-Called Chemo Brain

    K Hermelink

    JNCI Monographs 2015, Vol 2015 (51) p. 67-69

  • Cognitive-behavioral management of chemotherapy-related cognitive change
    RJ Ferguson (and others)
    Psychooncology, 2007. August;16(8):772-7

  • Non-pharmacological interventions for cognitive impairment due to systemic cancer treatment
    CJ Treanor and others 
    Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2016. Issue 8. Art. No: CD011325

  • What is known and unknown about chemotherapy-related cognitive impairment in patients with haematological malignancies and areas of needed research

    A M Williams, C S Zent and M C Janelsins

    British Journal of Haematology 2016, Vol 174 (6), p. 835-846

Last reviewed: 
25 Aug 2020
Next review due: 
25 Aug 2023

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