How Does Cancer Impact Cognition?

Cancer affects millions of lives around the world. It can ruthlessly impact every part of a person’s life, such as their physical health, mental health, and cognition. In this blog post, we explore the complex relationship between cancer and cognition and how patients may be able to mitigate the effects.

Cancer and Cognition


Cancer is not just a battle fought in the body. The difficulties that arise from this disease can extend to the mind. Patients and survivors often report various cognitive changes during and after cancer treatment. Here are some key ways in which cancer can impact cognition:

“Chemo Brain”

“Chemo brain” is a widely recognized phenomenon that refers to cognitive changes experienced by cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. These changes may include memory lapses, difficulty concentrating, and brain fog. While the exact causes are not fully understood, chemotherapy drugs can affect the brain’s structure and function, leading to these cognitive symptoms.

Fatigue and Sleep Disturbances

Cancer-related fatigue is a common symptom that can significantly impact cognitive function. Patients often experience profound tiredness, making it challenging to focus, think clearly, or remember details. Sleep disturbances, which are also prevalent during cancer treatment, may further exacerbate cognitive difficulties.

Emotional Distress

The emotional toll of cancer, including anxiety and depression, can have a profound impact on cognitive function. Persistent emotional distress can lead to cognitive impairments such as reduced attention, impaired decision-making, slower processing speed, and decreased memory capacity.

Hormonal Changes

Certain cancers, like breast and prostate cancer, may require hormone-based therapies. These treatments can induce hormonal changes that affect cognitive function. For instance, hormonal fluctuations in menopausal women with breast cancer may lead to memory problems and difficulty concentrating.

Brain Metastasis

When cancer exists in the brain, it can directly affect cognitive function. Tumors in the brain can interfere with normal brain processes, leading to a range of cognitive deficits, including problems with memory, language, and spatial awareness.

Coping Strategies and Support

Facing the cognitive challenges associated with cancer can be a harsh challenge, but there are strategies and support systems available to help patients and survivors:

Cognitive Rehabilitation

Cognitive rehabilitation programs, led by healthcare professionals, may help patients improve cognitive function through exercises, strategies, and techniques designed to enhance memory, attention, executive function skills, and more.

Two of our research partners have utilized HappyNeuron Pro’s cognitive rehabilitation tool in studies with patients who have breast cancer, with encouraging results. You can read more about the research at these links:

A Comparison of two Computer-Assisted Cognitive Training Program Outcomes for Breast Cancer Survivors: A Pilot Study

Abstract of the study: 

Breast cancer survivors can have memory, attention, processing speed, and/or executive function impairment affecting their quality of life and function. This study aims to compare computer-assisted cognitive training with visual exercises to one with audio+visual exercises, and gain insight into the relationship between engagement in meaningful activities, cognitive deficits and quality of life.

Experiences With a Cognitive Rehabilitation Program for Five Female Breast Cancer Survivors: A Focus Group Study

Abstract of the study:

Cancer survivors frequently live with cognitive impairment. Cognitive rehabilitation can improve cognition, but few studies have addressed survivors’ apparent needs or experience with cognitive rehabilitation. The goal of this study was to explore the perceived needs of breast cancer survivors after diagnosis and their experiences with a cognitive rehabilitation program.

Mindfulness and Stress Reduction

Mindfulness practices, such as meditation and yoga, may help alleviate stress and improve cognitive function. Reducing stress can have a positive impact on memory, concentration, and mental clarity.

Supportive Care

Patients can seek support from healthcare providers, counselors, and support groups specializing in cancer-related cognitive challenges. These resources can provide valuable guidance, emotional support, and connection with others who are having similar experiences.

Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep, can help to keep cognition healthy in general. Maintaining these habits may help mitigate some cognitive symptoms associated with cancer and its treatment.


Cancer’s impact on cognition is multifaceted and often underestimated. While cognitive impairments can be incredibly challenging, it’s important for patients and their loved ones to recognize that they are not alone in this journey. With the right strategies and support, many individuals affected by cancer navigate these cognitive changes and continue to lead fulfilling lives.

Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

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