If you’re always feeling physically, mentally or emotionally exhausted, you’re not alone. Fatigue is the most common side effect experienced by patients during and after cancer treatment.
And, because there’s no way to test for cancer-related fatigue, it tends to be underdiagnosed.
The good news is that it’s possible to alleviate cancer-related fatigue. By recognizing the signs and symptoms of fatigue, you can empower yourself to discuss this side effect with your care team and get help.
Here’s what you should know about cancer fatigue, according to our clinical nurse Kim Kitchen.
Cancer-related fatigue is different from the fatigue experienced by healthy people
When healthy people are fatigued from their daily activities, extra rest typically helps. But that’s not always the case for cancer patients. That’s because fatigue can be caused by many cancer treatments, as well as the cancer itself and even other side effects. And that means cancer-related fatigue can last for long periods – and that cancer patients may get tired more easily and by exerting less energy than fatigued healthy individuals.
Cancer and cancer treatment put you at risk for fatigue
Part of the reason fatigue is so common among cancer patients is because it can be caused by so many different aspects of the cancer experience. This includes:
Loss of appetite, which may be caused by nausea and vomiting and can keep you from getting enough nutrients, such as vitamin B12, folic acid, iron and protein
Medications, such as those prescribed for depression, pain, sleep and nausea
Insomnia, another common cancer treatment side effect
Anxiety, depression and other mood disturbances, which are often triggered by a cancer diagnosis or treatment
A decline in physical activity
It’s possible to manage cancer fatigue
Cancer-related fatigue can affect your quality of life and make it harder for your body to heal from cancer treatment. So it’s important to try to manage your cancer-related fatigue. Here’s what Kitchen recommends.
Get rest, but not too much. Opt for small rest breaks or naps between activities instead of one big nap. That’s because too much rest may make you even drowsier or make it difficult to sleep at night.
Accept help from others. When people offer to help, take them on it. Let them do things like go to the grocery for you, mow your lawn or drive your kids to school and activities. This way, you can conserve your energy for when you need it.
Maintain a healthy diet. This can be hard during cancer treatment, especially if you’re dealing with appetite loss or nausea, but do your best to eat enough protein and calories so that your body can get healthy. If you are having trouble getting enough calories and are an MD Anderson patient, ask a member of your care team to refer you to a dietitian.
Distract yourself. Dance, watch TV, listen to music or read a good book to distract yourself from the fatigue. Doing something you enjoy may also boost your mood.
Exercise. Though you’re tired, exercise is the best way to reduce cancer-related fatigue. Kitchens recommends taking a brisk walk, or trying cycling, swimming, aerobics, strength training or resistance training – basically, whatever it takes to get you moving, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Bonus: exercise will also help you sleep better and boost your mood.
Keep a fatigue journal so you can start to see patterns and prioritize your activities.
MD Anderson has resources to help you manage your cancer fatigue
You don’t have to try to manage cancer fatigue alone. Talk to your doctor about the fatigue symptoms you’re experiencing. And, if you’re an MD Anderson patient, ask your doctor to refer you to our Cancer-Related Fatigue Clinic. Our team of doctors and nurses will work with you to develop a comprehensive, personalized plan for managing your fatigue so you can get back to living your life faster.