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Memory and cognition

How do memory and cognition issues affect cancer patients?

Memory and cognition issues are characterized by impairments in learning, thinking, recall, language skills and concentration. Cancer patients and survivors alike often experience cognitive changes during or after treatment, a phenomenon commonly called “chemobrain.” Despite the name, chemobrain symptoms develop not just in chemotherapy patients, but in those treated with radiation, hormone and immunotherapy, for brain cancer and with brain and spinal cord infections. These patients may experience difficulty learning new information or tasks, or have trouble multitasking, retrieving common words, names and dates or who simply take longer to process information. Most symptoms subside within a brief time, particularly symptoms linked to medication. Some patients, especially those treated with radiation and chemotherapy, experience longer-lasting effects.

How likely are cancer patients to experience memory and cognition issues?

While undergoing treatment, nearly 75 percent of cancer patients experience cognitive issues, ranging in symptoms and severity from patient to patient, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. After completing cancer treatments, 35 percent still suffer from chemobrain side effects.

How may integrative care help?

Integrative cancer care approaches memory and cognition issues in a number of ways, with oncology rehabilitation support, anti-pain medications and other therapies. The supportive care services that may be recommended include:

Oncology rehabilitation

Occupational and speech therapists on the oncology rehabilitation team help patients who experience difficulty with memory, processing, recall, problem solving, and the ability to pay attention during daily tasks. The team designs individualized programs aimed at helping patients stay focused, sharp and alert at work, at home or out in the public, coaching them on basic tasks, such as reading a newspaper, dressing and eating, and on more dynamic processes, based on patients’ goals. Speech therapists may also help with language and auditory processes impaired by cancer treatments.

Learn more about oncology rehabilitation