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Memory, Thinking & Attention

All types of cancer treatments can affect thinking, memory and attention.

Handout for Memory & Attention Problems is found in Emotional Support - Helpful handouts

This information will help you find ways to manage the changes regardless of the type of treatment you are having. However, we will only make reference to chemotherapy treatment. Please talk to an oncology professional if you are worried about any of these problems.

Chemotherapy and thinking ("cognition")

Chemotherapy can cause cognitive symptoms such as changes to your memory, thinking and attention. Some people may even refer to these problems as "brain fog" or "chemo brain". These types of problems can be frustrating and can cause you anxiety, stress and even embarrassment.


Cognitive symptoms do not affect everyone receiving chemotherapy, but they are common for many people. Less than half of the people who have chemotherapy have difficulty with memory and attention. 

Are you experiencing any of the following?

  • forgetting things that are well known to you, such as important names or dates
  • you cannot concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time
  • it takes longer than usual for you to recall information and respond
  • it takes longer than usual for you to finish a task
  • you are not able to do more than one thing at a time, such as talk on the phone while cooking a meal (multitasking)
  • you have trouble with high-level reasoning such as doing math calculations

Some people only experience these symptoms during their treatment, but some people may have symptoms for longer. 

Generally, memory and attention problems are mild and symptoms disappear or decrease in the days and months following treatment. But for some people the symptoms are more disruptive to their lives. They may take longer before starting to improve or may not improve at all. 

While we know that these problems exist, no one knows which patients will be affected in this way, or why.


Research suggests there is not a single link to memory, thinking and attention problems for those cancer patients receiving chemotherapy treatment. A combination of factors may be considered which include:

  • type and location of the cancer
  • whether a person had brain surgery
  • type, amount and duration of treatment
  • metastases
  • the presence of other diseases or conditions
  • mental health history
  • age
  • stress and anxiety

It can be very upsetting when problems with memory, thinking or attention occur. No one likes the embarrassment of forgetting your colleague's name or not being able to make sense of a newspaper article or watch an entire movie. You may become frustrated, anxious and worried about the changes. This additional stress may make things even worse.

See the "learn more" section to find out more.


BC Cancer Library Memory, Thinking and Attention Pathfinder

BCCA pamphlets: Memory & Attention Problems handout can be found under Emotional Support


Revised Feb 2014

SOURCE: Memory, Thinking & Attention ( )
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