Fatigue for a cancer patient means feeling tired physically, mentally, and emotionally. Cancer-related fatigue is one of the most common side effects of the disease and its treatment.

Why fatigue happens

Cancer fatigue can have many causes. Among them are effects of the cancer treatment, inadequate nutrition, lack of exercise, and the cancer itself.

Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can all contribute to a reduced quality of functioning on a temporary basis. This run-down feeling can persist for some time, even after therapy is completed.

Fatigue may also be a reaction to the stress and depression of having cancer. Low blood counts, pain, and sleep difficulties may be other contributing factors.

It sounds like a paradox, but research shows that too much rest can make you more tired. Rest is important, but staying in bed for extended periods can cause wasting of muscle tissues, producing loss of performance.

Fatigue symptoms

"Some patients describe the unpredictable sensation as feeling suddenly like hitting a brick wall, or having a vacuum cleaner suck out all their energy," explains Candy Negrete, RN, MS, AOCN, at John Muir Health. "This fatigue is real, and it's unlike any other feeling of tiredness. “

Negrete is a specialist in cancer fatigue who belongs to a national organization focusing on this problem.

Fatigue management

"We try to identify the cause of fatigue,” says Randall Oyer, MD, chairman of hematology/oncology at John Muir Health. “Anemia, medication side effects, thyroid imbalance, any infection or other medical problem, and depression may contribute to cancer fatigue.”

“We address those conditions directly,” says Dr. Oyer. “If there is no identifiable cause, we recommend a healthy diet, periods of rest, exercise in gradual increments, and rationing of time and energy for the most important and enjoyable activities."

Carefully managing your symptoms of fatigue will help you adjust to your treatment program and allow you to participate more fully in modified daily activities.

Fatigue tips

  • Balance rest with activity and set up a structured routine
  • If you are continuing to work, try for a modified work schedule or flexible hours
  • Arrange the most challenging activities for a time of day when you are usually at your best
  • Talk with your employer and co-workers to help them understand what you are going through and to reassure them that these symptoms are temporary
  • Be realistic about what your work goals might be during this time
  • Stay as active as you can, walking several times a week
  • Drink plenty of liquids and eat nutritious foods
  • If you live alone, call upon friends, your church, or social agencies to help
  • Learn and practice stress management techniques
  • Join a support group

"Carefully managing your symptoms of fatigue will help you adjust to your treatment program and allow you to participate more fully in modified daily activities," Negrete points out. "When the patient feels better, the caregiver's role also becomes easier."

Fatigue prevention

Clinical trials of new medications for cancer treatment gives patients hope that researchers may soon discover the mechanism causing fatigue.

"We now have antidotes for some of the most problematic side effects of chemotherapy such as nausea and low blood counts," Dr. Oyer indicates. “Understanding that cancer-related fatigue has a limited time frame helps caregivers and colleagues to be more supportive, too."

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