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How to Manage Cancer-Related Fatigue


Fatigue is the most common side effect of cancer treatment -- up to 96 percent of people with cancer experience it. However, cancer-related fatigue is often more severe, and more overwhelming, than everyday fatigue that most everyone experiences from time to time.

cancer related fatigue

People often describe cancer-related fatigue as "overwhelming" and "paralyzing."

"Cancer-related fatigue feels very different from everyday fatigue," Lillian Nail, PhD, RN, a cancer survivor who has studied this side effect at the University of Utah School of Nursing, told the American Cancer Society.

"'Overwhelming' is the most common description," Dr. Nail said. "When compared with the fatigue experienced by healthy people, cancer-related fatigue is more severe, it lasts longer, and sleep just doesn't bring relief."

Low blood count, sleep disruption, stress, and not eating enough all contribute to cancer-related fatigue, as does the physical burden that cancer treatments put on your body. According to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America:

"The type of cancer treatment you receive can determine the pattern of fatigue you experience. Cancer treatments commonly associated with fatigue include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, immunotherapy, bone marrow/stem cell transplant, and/or a combination of treatments.

With radiation therapy, your body needs extra energy to repair damaged skin tissue. Radiation therapy can cause cumulative fatigue (fatigue that increases over the course of treatment). Fatigue brought on by radiation therapy usually lasts from three to four weeks (but can persist for months) after treatment ends.

With chemotherapy, as anti-cancer drugs work to destroy cancer cells, they can also harm healthy red blood cells and decrease new red blood cell production. Chemotherapy can also disrupt your eating and/or sleeping habits. In general, chemotherapy-related fatigue usually peaks at the time when blood counts are low (nadir), which is generally a few days after treatment."

Distinguishing Cancer-Related Fatigue From Depression

Health care providers often confuse fatigue for depression and vice versa because the symptoms of both conditions are so similar. With depression, however, there is an inability to feel pleasure, along with feelings of sadness, despair, guilt and other negative emotions. Signs of cancer-related fatigue, meanwhile, include:

  • Tiredness, weariness or exhaustion, even after sleep

  • Lack of energy to do regular activities

  • Trouble concentrating, thinking clearly or remembering

  • Feeling negative, irritable, impatient, or unmotivated

  • Lack of interest in normal activities

  • Paying less attention to personal appearance

  • Spending more time in bed or sleeping

  • Short of breath after light activity

  • A need to stop in the middle of activities to rest

Managing Cancer-Related Fatigue

Cancer-related fatigue is an often-overlooked part of having cancer, but ignoring this condition in yourself or your loved one will only make coping with it more difficult. To help manage cancer-related fatigue and gain some control over your energy levels and your life:

walking increases energy

Going for short walks will help to increase your energy when you feel fatigued.

  1. Modify your daily routine. Don't expect to keep up with all that you used to. Prioritize what's most important, and cut out the rest.

  2. Schedule according to your energy. Make plans to do the most important things during the times when you feel most energized.

  3. Take regular breaks. Keep activity to short intervals, then rest, or even nap, in between.

  4. Eat well. Lots of fruits and vegetables, pure water and a healthy mix of carbs, protein and fat will help keep you going strong.

  5. Exercise if you can. You don't want to overexert yourself, but some exercise will help to increase your energy levels. Start with a 15-minute walk, swim or bike ride a few times a week, and increase it from there.

  6. Delegate and conserve. Ask friends or family to do some errands or chores around the house, then conserve your energy as much as possible by planning simple meals, shopping at non-peak hours and doing things that can be done sitting down.

  7. Manage your stress. A cancer support group may help you to share your challenges with others who understand. Activities that take your mind off of fatigue, such as reading or listening to music, are also good stress relievers.

Recommended Reading

The 13 Most Common Forms of Cancer and the Keys to Prevention

The 8 Most Unusual Sources of Potential Cancer Cures


Cancer Treatment Centers of America

National Cancer Institute

American Cancer Society

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