Treatment Side Effects - Memory Problems

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2017.

Some people who undergo treatment for lung cancer experience side effects of problems with their memory or concentration. Patients may describe it as fogginess or a mental fog, and it is sometimes called “chemo brain.” One potential risk factor that has been identified for putting patients at higher risk of experiencing memory problems with cancer treatment is age. Older adults seem to be more vulnerable to developing cognitive impairment from cancer treatment.1,2

Cognitive problems during or after treatment

Cognitive problems may start during or after treatment has finished, and they may be mild or more challenging. For some people, the changes are subtle and hardly noticeable, while others experience significant changes that affect their daily life. For most people who experience cognitive impairment with lung cancer treatment, the effects only last a short time. However, some experience long-term mental changes.1,3

Types of memory problems

Problems with cognitive function may show up as:2,3

  • Forgetting details like names or dates
  • Trouble remembering common words
  • Loss of short-term memory
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Inability to multitask
  • Taking longer to finish things

After treatment is finished, most people report that their symptoms of memory problems or fogginess improve. Studies have shown that about a year after treatment is completed, between 75-80 percent of patients say their cognitive function is back to normal.2,3

What causes memory problems?

While the side effects of fogginess or memory problems are sometimes called “chemo brain,” researchers believe that these side effects can be caused by more than just chemotherapy. Surgery, for example, which uses general anesthesia, can cause cognitive impairments. In addition, stress, depression and fatigue, which are commonly experienced by people with lung cancer, can also influence cognitive functioning. Patients who have metastases (spread of lung cancer) to the brain and who receive radiation therapy aimed at the brain may also have memory impairments. With multiple treatments that can cause these side effects, researchers commonly refer to this as “cancer treatment-associated cognitive change.”2,4

Memory management techniques

While research continues to look into the causes and possible treatments for the cognitive changes that occur in cancer treatment, there is currently no way to prevent these side effects. There are several techniques that can help manage memory problems and fogginess caused by lung cancer treatment, such as:1,2,4

Get regular exercise

Exercise helps decrease stress and improves well-being. Some studies have shown exercise can have a positive effect on cognitive functioning.

Use tools to help

Using a daily planner or a smart phone can be helpful to keep all important information in one place, including phone numbers, medication lists and appointments.

Get proper nutrition

Eating a diet rich in nutrients, like those from vegetables, helps support brain function.

Using support systems

Leaning on friends and family to help with daily tasks can help patients manage memory problems.

Focus on one thing at a time

Avoid multi-tasking, which can be difficult and frustrating when experiencing cognitive impairments.

Talking to doctors and nurses

Patients who experience cognitive changes with treatment should discuss their side effects with their health care team.

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