Chemo-Brain & Memory Problems

Many people with cancer experience trouble thinking, remembering, and concentrating before, during, and after their cancer treatment. These mental changes may last just a short time or go on for years. They can prevent you from returning to work or taking on the responsibilities you were used to before cancer.

Despite its name, chemo-brain may be caused by other treatments or happen at any time during a person’s cancer journey.

Though its exact cause isn’t always known, this mental cloudiness (also called “chemo-brain”) has been linked with radiation treatment, chemotherapy, and other cancer drugs. But research shows that these aren’t the only things that can cause thinking and memory problems in people with cancer. More research is needed to help prevent it when possible, and to cope with it when necessary.

Manage Chemo-Brain and Memory Problems

Follow these tips to help you sharpen your mental abilities and manage chemo-brain.

Follow a Routine

Using a planner to track your schedule and reminders can help you stay organized. It helps to keep all your notes in one place. Also, set up and follow routines, and focus on only one thing at a time instead of doing many things at once.

Take Care of Yourself

Be sure to get enough rest and sleep, and exercise your body and brain. Learn more about fatigue and nutrition after cancer treatment.

Ask for Help

Tell your health care team about any trouble you’re having thinking, remembering, or concentrating, especially if it keeps causing trouble in your daily life. Tell your friends and loved ones, too. Having their support may help you feel more relaxed, making it easier for you to focus. Plus they can help you with everyday tasks.

Keep a Diary

Track your memory problems. When do you notice problems? What’s happening when you do? Keeping track may help you avoid future problems, and it will be useful when you talk with your doctor.

Talk to Your Health Care Team

Help Your Brain Be at Its Best

Maintaining good health and wellness will help your brain be at its best. Exercising your body and mind can help to decrease stress and help you to feel more alert. Mind-body practices such as meditation or mental exercises such as puzzles or games also help some people.

Be Physically Active

Most people are safe to start a walking program or another light-to-moderate intensity exercise program on their own. However, if you’ve never exercised before or you have balance problems or muscle weakness, you should check with your doctor to determine a safe exercise program before adding physical activity to your routine. You may need physical therapy or another medically supervised conditioning program.

Talk to Your Health Care Team

Your doctor should help you create an exercise program that you like, that meets your needs, and also keeps you safe. Be sure to tell your entire cancer care team about your exercise throughout your treatment. Learn more.

Keep It Safe, Simple, and Fun

If you have cancer, it may be better for you to exercise at a slower rate than people who don’t have cancer. While it’s good to stay active, be sure to base your program on what’s safe and fun for you. Learn more about exercise during cancer treatment.

Get Effective Exercise

  • Everyone’s exercise program will be different. Your goal should be to exercise for at least 10 minutes at a time. Some people may need guidance to make an appropriate exercise plan.
  • An exercise plan may include different types of exercise: 1) aerobic exercise, 2) exercise that increases your flexibility and range of motion, and 3) muscle-strengthening exercise.
  • Start slowly. Don’t work too hard or for too long. Build up intensity and exercise for longer periods slowly over time.
  • Include a warm up for at least 2 to 3 minutes and a cool down.

Learn More Ways to Stay Physically Active

You may be surprised by all the different ways you can add physical activity to your daily routine, like washing your car or weeding your garden. The American Cancer Society has a list of similar activities.

Reduce Stress

We can’t control everything in life. But we can control how we react to life’s stresses. Set aside about 5 to 10 minutes a day, if possible, to practice one or more of these relaxation exercises.

Connect with Your Body's Relaxation Response

  1. Lie comfortably on your back or find a comfortable and quiet place to sit.
  2. Close your eyes and breathe gently and naturally through your nose.
  3. Relax all your muscles, starting at your toes and moving up to the top of your head.
  4. Focus on your breathing.
  5. Continue for 5 to 20 minutes.
  6. When you are done, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and then with your eyes open. Wait a few minutes before standing up.

Practice Deep Conscious Breathing

  1. Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit or lie down.
  2. Relax your face, jaw, neck, and shoulders. Gently place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly button.
  3. As you breathe in, allow the breath to expand your belly, chest, and lungs. As you breathe out, gently press your hands against your chest and belly to let out more air.
  4. Focus on steady breathing.
  5. Take your time.

Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation

  1. Plan to take about 15 minutes to do the exercise.
  2. Find a quiet place where no one will disturb you.
  3. First, apply muscle tension to a specific part of the body. Take a slow, deep breath and squeeze the muscles as hard as you can for about 5 seconds.
  4. After about 5 seconds, quickly relax the tensed muscles. Exhale as you let all the tightness flow out of the tensed muscles. The muscles should feel loose as you relax them. It’s very important for you to notice and focus on the difference between the tension and relaxation.
  5. Stay relaxed for about 15 seconds, and then do the same thing for the next muscle group. Once you’ve gone through all of the muscle groups, take a moment to enjoy the relaxation.

Use Distraction

Do something that you enjoy, like a hobby, so you’ll have something else to think about instead of worrying about cancer.

Consider Biofeedback Training

With biofeedback training, a machine tells you when your body shows signs of stress. Over time, you can learn to relax without using the machine.

Talk to Your Health Care Team

Talk with your health care team about your level of stress. This can help you find out whether you have anxiety or depression, and how to manage your stress.

Find a Peer Group

Peer groups, mental health counseling, stress management training, and relaxation exercises are some ways you can learn to cope with stress. Use the American Cancer Society’s Resource Search to find a peer group in your area or call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 for personalized assistance.

Take a Quiz: What's Your Stress Level?

Take this quiz to find out how much stress you have been dealing with lately.

Get Healthy Sleep

Sleep problems are common during cancer treatment and can worsen symptoms of chemo brain. Factors that affect sleep include pain, anxiety, worry, depression, night sweats, or the side effects of treatment or medicines. Here are some tips for getting healthy sleep.

Plan Time to Rest

If you are tired, take short naps (less than 1 hour) during the day, but don’t overdo it. Too much sleep during the day can make it difficult to sleep at night.

Keep a Regular Routine

Setting a routine for going to bed and getting up will help you get healthier sleep. You can also avoid caffeine before you go to bed. Get other tips to help you manage sleep problems.

Talk to Your Health Care Team

Tell your doctor if you’re having sleep problems.

Ask Your Caregiver for Help

Your caregiver may be able to help you by keeping the room quiet and comfortable while you sleep, or assisting in your bedtime routine. Learn what else caregivers can do.

Eat Well

Eating well and staying hydrated can help you cope with the side effects of treatment and will help your body heal after treatment. It can be hard to choose healthy foods when you are fatigued, but the following tips can make it easier. ACS has information and tips on eating well.

Talk to Your Health Care Team

Ask your team whether you should avoid any foods or restrict your diet in any way. Work with them to create a nutritious, balanced eating plan and exercise program. Get more tips here.

Eat Healthy Foods

Make sure your diet includes a variety of foods from all the major food groups. Limit fats, red meats, and process foods. Get more tips for healthy eating after cancer treatment from the American Cancer Society.

Limit Your Alcohol Intake

Alcohol may interact with some cancer treatments. Women who choose to drink alcohol should have no more than 1 drink per day. Men should have no more than 2 drinks per day.

Medications

Your doctor may suggest treatments to address conditions that may affect your thinking, remembering, and concentrating. When you visit your doctor or cancer care team, bring a written log of the difficult situations you’ve had, as well as a list of all the medications you’re taking.

Keep Track of Your Medications

Be sure to include things like vitamins, herbs, or other supplements, drugs you take as needed, and medicines you get at the drug store. Use this medication chart from the American Cancer Society to keep track of everything you’re taking.

Get Support

For more detailed information on support options, visit Get Support.

Talk to Your Health Care Team

Your health care team needs to know how you’re doing. Be sure to tell them about any changes you notice.

Talk to Family and Friends

Your loved ones want to support you. They can help with activities like housework, running errands, and getting to appointments. Be as specific as possible about the kind of help you need.

Find Peer Support

Talk About Your Concerns

Peer groups offer a welcoming environment to share your feelings and experiences with people who are going through the same things. Use the American Cancer Society’s Resource Search to find a peer group in your area or call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 for personalized assistance.

Visit the Cancer Survivors Network Online

The Cancer Survivors Network is an online community with more than 40 discussion boards where cancer survivors share their cancer-related experiences, support one another, and exchange practical tips.

NCI Cancer Information Service

Call

Speak to a National Cancer Institute health information specialist by calling 1-800-4-Cancer.

Chat

The National Cancer Institute offers live, online assistance through its LiveHelp service.

ACS National Cancer Information Center

Get Tips

Get information and tips from a cancer information specialist at the American Cancer Society by calling 1-800-227-2345. Lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Chat

The American Cancer Society offers live, online assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Select the Live Chat option from any page on cancer.org.

Learn More About Chemo-Brain and Memory Problems

The National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society have additional resources to help you, including memory changes and chemo-brain.