How Cancer Treatment Effects Cognitive Function

Cancer treatment can bring about a lot of physical changes for the patient.  From decreased energy, to nausea, to pain and more.  Many of these things can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes but one thing many people do not consider is that cognitive function may also be effected by cancer treatment.  Cognitive function is someone’s ability to process thoughts, comprehend what they are reading, and speak.  Chemotherapy has many side effects, some lasting, and some temporary.  So, how will cognitive function be effected by cancer treatment?

Battling the side effects of chemotherapy can be incredibly frustrating and diminishing cognitive function is not only frustrating, but challenging to deal with.  While not every patient will experience  a decline in their cognitive ability, some will and it is important to understand what it is and what it looks like.  Livestrong Foundation explains how cognitive function can be effected by cancer treatment, “Some cancers and treatments can result in cognitive changes that affect thinking, learning, processing or remembering information. These changes can affect many aspects of life such as the ability to work or even to do everyday tasks. Find out whether you have an increased risk of cognitive changes.  Cognitive changes can happen suddenly (acute onset) or slowly over time (gradual onset). These types of changes can be different in adults and children. We’ll focus here on cognitive changes in adults with cancer. Talk with your health care team if you have questions related to children who experience cognitive changes… Cognitive changes are sometimes related to higher dose chemotherapy and the use of immunotherapy to boost the immune system. Those who have cancer involving the brain may also experience cognitive changes as a result of the tumor or the treatment of the tumor. While cognitive changes associated with brain surgery often occur immediately, changes associated with radiation and chemotherapy can develop more gradually over time.”  Below are a list of potential side effects or symptoms of cognitive decline that you may notice.  If you notice any of these changes, consult your physician to discuss your symptoms and discuss ways to treat them.

  • Symptoms
    • Confusion
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Difficulty remembering things that happened, even recently
    • Difficulty finding the right word
    • Difficulty multitasking
    • Feeling foggy
    • Fatigue
    • Short attention span
    • Unusually disorganized
    • Difficulty with judgment or reasoning
  • How to Treat Symptoms
    • Repetitive memory and thinking exercises.  They are like pushups for your mind, the repetition builds a stronger brain.
    • Establish a daily routine that stays consistent so you know what to expect.
    • Leave post-it notes around your home or workplace to help remind you about things.
    • Keep a detailed calendar so that you do not forget appointments and other social events.
    • Make lists –  for the grocery store, for errands, for anything you need to keep track of.
    • Keep a journal.  This will help you keep track of things that happen during the day and things that you want to remember.
    • Exercise your brain with games.  Many people find that things like crossword puzzles or numbers games help the mind focus and strengthen cognitive function.  There are also many apps for smart devices now that are aimed at improving cognitive function.

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