Cognitive side effects of radiation

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For some people, radiation can affect memory and ability to think, learn and concentrate. These are known as cognitive side effects. Find out who gets cognitive side effects, how you will know if you have cognitive side effects and the effects of these changes.

Key points

  • Cognitive side effects include changes to memory, learning, concentration and ability to think.
  • Cognitive side effects depend on the radiation dose you receive and how old you are when you receive it.
  • Signs of cognitive side effects include not being able to complete tasks, feeling confused and not being able to think clearly.
  • Changes in cognitive abilities can lead to difficulties with learning and school work.
  • Your health-care team can help you manage and cope with these side effects.

What are cognitive side effects?

Thinking, remembering, concentrating and learning happen in your brain. Your brain communicates with the rest of your body through your spinal cord, which is inside your spine and the nerves attached to your spinal cord.

For some people radiation can cause problems with their memory and their ability to think, concentrate and learn. These are called cognitive side effects. You may not be able to remember things as well as you could before treatment and you may have to work harder to learn new things.

Who gets cognitive side effects?

You’re more likely to have cognitive side effects if you:

  • received high doses of radiation to the head, brain, eye, ear, face or whole body
  • received radiation to the brain at the same time as chemotherapy
  • have a tumour in your brain or spinal cord
  • are younger, because your brain is still developing
  • receive high doses of certain types of chemotherapy
  • have had treatments given through a lumbar puncture

Remember: Radiation doses can vary from person to person. Cognitive side effects depend on the dose you receive and how old you are when you receive it.

How will I know if I have cognitive side effects?

Cognitive side effects can be different for different people. Some people who are at risk of cognitive side effects never have any issues with their ability to think or learn. It really depends on the person, the type of cancer they have, their age and the type and strength of the radiation treatment they receive. Some cognitive effects happen during treatment and then go away. Others happen much later, after treatment has ended, and can be permanent.

Some signs of cognitive effects are:

  • finding it hard to concentrate
  • finding it hard to remember new things
  • not being able to complete tasks
  • feeling confused
  • not being able to think 'clearly'

If you or the people close to you notice that you’re showing any of these signs, it’s important that you and/or your parent/caregiver talk to your doctor or another member of your health-care team. They can help you manage.

What are the effects of cognitive changes?

Changes in your cognitive abilities may lead to difficulties with school, work, and learning such as:

  • difficulty with handwriting and spelling
  • difficulty with reading
  • being unable to use some words
  • difficulty doing math
  • having trouble concentrating or paying attention
  • finding it hard to complete tasks on time
  • having difficulty completing assignments or remembering information for a test
  • finding it hard to plan, organize or solve problems

Although these changes may never fully go away, there are ways to manage them. There may be ways that you can work around them so that you can still be successful in work, school and the rest of life. You’ll learn more about strategies and supports in the section called After cancer.

It can be really upsetting to deal with cognitive changes or to think that they could happen. Adding these worries to all the other stresses and challenges of being a teenager with cancer can seem overwhelming. If you have any concerns or questions, speak with someone on your health-care team. They can support you and help you manage. They can help you and your parent/caregiver find strategies, learning experts and resources to help you manage cognitive changes and improve your cognitive function. They take time and effort but can be done.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019