Chemo Brain

Chemo brain — Comprehensive overview covers symptoms, treatment of memory changes associated with cancer treatment.


Chemo brain is a common term used by cancer survivors to describe thinking and memory problems that can occur after cancer treatment. Chemo brain can also be called chemo fog, cognitive changes or cognitive dysfunction.

Though chemo brain is a widely used term, it’s misleading. It’s not yet clear that chemotherapy is the cause of concentration and memory problems in cancer survivors. And many cancer survivors with memory problems still score well on cognitive tests, leaving doctors wondering whether chemo brain really exists.

Despite the many questions, it’s clear that the memory problems commonly called chemo brain can be a frustrating and debilitating side effect of cancer and its treatment. More study is needed to understand this condition.



Signs and symptoms of chemo brain may include:

  • Being unusually disorganized
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty finding the right word
  • Difficulty learning new skills
  • Difficulty multitasking
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling of mental fogginess
  • Short attention span
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Taking longer than usual to complete routine tasks
  • Trouble with verbal memory, such as remembering a conversation
  • Trouble with visual memory, such as recalling an image or list of words


Signs and symptoms of cognitive or memory problems vary from person to person and are typically temporary, often subsiding within two years of completion of cancer treatment.

When to see a doctor

If you experience troubling memory or thinking problems, make an appointment with your doctor. Keep a journal of your signs and symptoms so that your doctor can better understand how your memory problems are affecting your everyday life.


It’s not clear what causes signs and symptoms of memory problems in cancer survivors. Cancer-related causes could include:

Cancer treatments

  • Chemotherapy
  • Hormone therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Stem cell transplant
  • Surgery


Complications of cancer treatment

  • Anemia
  • Fatigue
  • Infection
  • Menopause (associated with hormone therapy)
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Sleep problems, such as insomnia


Emotional reactions to cancer diagnosis and treatment

  • Anxiety
  • Depression


Other causes

  • Inherited susceptibility to chemo brain
  • Medications for other cancer-related signs and symptoms, such as pain medications


Risk factors

Factors that may increase the risk of memory problems in cancer survivors include:

  • Brain cancer
  • Chemotherapy given directly to the central nervous system
  • Chemotherapy combined with whole-brain radiation
  • Higher doses of chemotherapy or radiation
  • Radiation therapy to the brain
  • Younger age at time of cancer diagnosis and treatment



The severity and duration of the symptoms sometimes described as chemo brain differ from person to person. Some cancer survivors may return to work, but find tasks take extra concentration or time. Others will be unable to return to work.

If you experience severe memory or concentration problems that make it difficult to do your job, tell your doctor. You may be referred to an occupational therapist, who can help you adjust to your current job or identify your strengths so that you may find a new job.

In rare cases, people with memory and concentration problems are unable to work and must file for disability benefits. Ask your health care team for a referral to an oncology social worker or a similar professional who can help you understand your options.

Preparing for your appointment

If you’re currently undergoing cancer treatment, talk to your oncologist about your signs and symptoms. If you’ve completed treatment, you might start by making an appointment with your family doctor or a general practitioner. In some cases, you may be referred to a professional who specializes in helping people cope with memory difficulties (neuropsychologist).

Because appointments can be brief, and because there’s often a lot of ground to cover, it’s a good idea to be well prepared. Here’s some information to help you get ready and what to expect from your doctor.

What you can do

  • Keep a journal of your memory lapses. Describe the situations in which you experience memory problems. Note what you were doing and what type of difficulty you experienced.
  • Make a list of all medications, as well as any vitamins or supplements, that you’re taking.
  • Take a family member or friend along or bring a recorder. Sometimes it can be difficult to absorb all the information provided during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot. Record the conversation with your doctor so you can listen to it later.
  • Write down questions to ask your doctor.

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