Emotional Responses

Cognitive disorders and delirium may be complications of cancer and cancer treatment, especially in people with advanced cancer.

People who have cognitive disorders or delirium may fall in and out of consciousness and have problems with attention, thinking, awareness, emotion, memory, muscle control, sleeping and waking. Delirium usually occurs suddenly and the symptoms may come and go during the day. This condition can be treated and is often temporary, even in people with advanced illness, although it may become permanent in the last 24 to 48 hours of life.

As a family member or caregiver, cognitive disorders and delirium can be upsetting. The confused mental state of these patients may hinder communication with family members and health care providers. These conditions can cause the patient to act unpredictably and sometimes violently. Even a quiet or calm person can suddenly experience a change in mood or become agitated.

The conditions may also be dangerous to the patient if judgment is affected. Patients with cognitive disorders or delirium are more likely to fall, be incontinent and become dehydrated. They often require a longer hospital stay than patients without cognitive disorders or delirium.

Possible signs of cognitive disorders and delirium include sudden personality changes, impaired thinking, or unusual anxiety or depression.

A patient who suddenly becomes agitated or uncooperative, experiences personality or behavior changes, has impaired thinking, decreased attention span, or intense, unusual anxiety or depression, may be experiencing cognitive disorders or delirium. Patients who develop these symptoms need to be assessed completely. The symptoms of delirium are similar to symptoms of depression and dementia.

Tips for Living with Cognitive Problems

If you are undergoing cancer treatment, you may be experiencing problems with concentration, awareness, emotion, or memory due to stress or from your cancer treatment. You or a family member should contact your doctor if you are experiencing any cognitive problems, to rule out other health problems.

Sometimes, the problems are a side effect of cancer treatment and will go away with time. You may want to consider some of the tips below to help you focus.

Plan your day.
  • Do things that need the most thinking at the time of day when you feel best.
  • Get extra rest.
Get help to remember things.
  • Write down or tape record things you want to remember.
  • Write down important dates and information on a calendar.
  • Use a pill box or calendar to help keep track of your medicines.
Ask for help.
  • Ask a friend or family member for extra help when you need it.
  • Ask your nurse or social worker for help to keep track of medicines and clinic visits.
  • If you are very confused, have someone stay with you. Don’t stay home alone.
Questions to ask your doctor or nurse:
  • What problems should I call you about?
  • What could be causing these problems?
  • Is there medicine that can help me?
  • What other tips can you give me that might help?
  • How long will these problems last?