Memory difficulties and brain tumours

Our brain controls all of our cognitive functions including reasoning, attention, language and memory. Not everyone with a brain tumour will experience memory difficulties, and for those that do, the symptoms and severity will differ from person to person.

What is memory?

Memory is our ability to take in and store information, as well as to recall that information at a later time. There are two types of memory:

Short term memory

This is when we remember things from a few seconds ago, such as the name of a person we just met.

Long term memory

This allows us to recall information from the past, whether it is a minute ago, a year ago or many decades ago. It includes:

  • procedural memory - remembering how to carry out processes and activities such as swimming, driving and riding a bike.
  • semantic memory - being able to describe and give meaning to our world. For example, naming a city or describing what a cat is.
  • episodic memory - remembering specific events and experiences you have lived through such as what happened at a relative's birthday.

How can my brain tumour affect my memory?

Not everyone with a brain tumour will experience memory difficulties, but if you do, it will mainly depend on:

  • where your tumour is in the brain (location)
  • the treatment you have.

The effects and their severity of memory difficulties differs from person to person.

Effect of tumour location on memory

Multiple areas of the brain are involved in storing and recalling different types of memories. For this reason, it is not always possible to accurately predict if and how a person's memory will be affected by a brain tumour. However, two areas of the brain are particularly involved in memory – the frontal lobe and the temporal lobe. If a tumour is in these areas of the brain it may be more likely to affect memory.

a graphic diagram of the different areas of the brain and their functions

Effect of treatment

Neurosurgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy can all have an effect on the brain that may, in turn, affect memory. Again, the effects of treatment will vary from person to person.

Surgery on the brain may cause some temporary swelling which may affect cognition in general, including memory. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy may also affect cognition and energy levels in general. Side-effects caused by radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy could last for weeks and sometimes even months after treatment has ended.

What sort of memory difficulties might I experience?

Memory difficulties are sometimes referred to as 'amnesia'. The two most common types of amnesia are:

  • retrograde amnesia - Loss of memories formed before you had a brain tumour or treatment.
  • anterograde amnesia - Difficulty remembering memories formed after you had a brain tumour or treatment.

How can I cope with memory difficulties?

Identifying exactly what kind of memory difficulties you are affected by can help you and your health team devise a coping strategy aimed at reducing the impact of these problems on your everyday life. You may find the following suggestions useful:

Take care of yourself
Our energy levels affect how well we function mentally. Getting a good amount of sleep (6-8 hours) and eating regular, healthy meals can help improve your capacity to memorise and recall memories.

Keeping things relatively simple
Memory difficulties may affect your ability to undertake complex and energy-demanding activities. It is important for you to know your limits and avoid overworking yourself to the point of feeling confused and anxious.

Keeping a diary
A diary is a good way to keep track of your appointments and any other arrangements you may have planned. It may be useful to get into the habit of writing everything down and checking your diary regularly. You can also use alarms on watches or mobile phones to remind you of specific tasks or appointments or even just to remind you to check your diary.

Medication organisers or pill boxes
If you are taking prescription medication you may wish to buy a medication organiser or pill box. Medication organisers and pill boxes will allow you to track what you have to take and by when. These are available from most pharmacies.

Develop a set routine
Try to develop a set routine and try to leave items in the same places around your home so that you know where to look for them. For example, if you have difficulty finding your house keys, try to always leave them in the same drawer or try leaving a note on the door reminding you to take them.

Leave yourself reminder notes
Reminder notes can help you with things you might otherwise forget, for example, you could leave yourself a note by the front door reminding you to check that windows are closed and that the hob is off before you leave the house or you can leave a note on your bedside table at night reminding you to check you have locked up.

Store important telephone numbers
For easy access, you could store useful telephone numbers in your phone or on a single piece of paper. You could list an 'in case of emergency' (ICE) number in your phone so that someone else can find it for you even if you can't.

For more information on how to cope with memory difficulties visit the American Brain Tumour Association website.

Page last reviewed: 06/2016

Next review date: 06/2019

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