If you haven’t been diagnosed with cancer and you’re experiencing unexplained, persistent tiredness or lack of energy, you may be wondering if your fatigue could be a symptom of cancer.
While fatigue is a common symptom of cancer, cancer rarely causes fatigue alone. Fatigue is often multifactorial, meaning more than one contributing factor may be involved, and none of them may be cancer.
Fatigue is different from tiredness. Fatigue is a daily lack of energy — an unusual or excessive whole-body tiredness that is not relieved by sleep. It can be acute (lasting a month or less) or chronic (lasting from one to six months or longer). Fatigue can have a profoundly negative impact on a person’s ability to function and quality of life.
What is cancer-related fatigue?
Cancer-related fatigue (CRF, sometimes simply called “cancer fatigue”) is one of the most common side effects of cancer and its treatments. Many people who are chronically ill feel tired. But cancer-related fatigue goes beyond the usual tiredness. People who experience cancer fatigue often describe it as “paralysing.” Usually, it comes on suddenly and is not the result of activity or exertion. With this type of fatigue, no amount of rest or sleep helps. You feel physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted most of the time.
Cancer fatigue may last a few weeks (acute) or for months or years (chronic). Chronic cancer fatigue can harm your quality of life.
Is cancer fatigue common?
Cancer-related fatigue is very common and affects 80% to 100% of people with cancer.
How fatigue can affect your daily life
Fatigue can be very frustrating. You and your relatives might underestimate how much it can affect daily life.
Everyday life can be hard work and you might not have the energy to cook, clean, bathe or go shopping. You might not even feel up to a chat. Things that you used to find second nature or easy are now a task and can be hard work.
You and your doctor can sometimes overlook fatigue, especially if you have other side effects. It’s important to tell your doctor or nurse about how you’re coping day to day and if you are struggling.
Fatigue can affect the way you feel about yourself and your relationships with other people. You can feel very down and not want to go out or be with people which can be hard for them to understand.
You might have to stop working or cut down your hours. This can affect how much money you have.
You might feel like fatigue is a constant reminder of your cancer and this can be hard to accept.
You might worry that because you feel so tired all the time your cancer could be getting worse. But it is more likely to be a side effect of treatment, or due to the fact that cancer can cause fatigue.
Fatigue is very real and can have a big impact on your life. Let your doctor or nurse know if you think you have symptoms of fatigue. There are ways of managing it and your medical team will try to help you.
Coping strategies: Medical treatments and self-care
Because cancer-related fatigue may be caused by many factors, your doctor may suggest more than one method to reduce and cope with your symptoms. These may include self-care methods and, in certain cases, medications or medical procedures.
Medications may be available to treat the underlying cause of your fatigue. For instance, if your fatigue is the result of anaemia, blood transfusions may help. Medications that stimulate your bone marrow to produce more red blood cells might be another option.
If you’re depressed, your doctor might suggest medications that can help reduce the depression, increase appetite and improve your sense of well-being.
Improving your ability to sleep can help relieve fatigue. Sometimes medication can be effective in helping you sleep.
Adequate pain management can go a long way in decreasing fatigue, but certain pain medications can make fatigue worse, so work with your doctor to achieve the appropriate balance.
Medications to increase alertness might be an option in certain situations.
Coping with fatigue might require things you can do on your own. You might try to:
- Take it easy. Set aside time in your day to rest. Take short naps — no longer than an hour — throughout the day rather than resting for one long period.
- Conserve your energy. Save your energy for your most important activities. Keep track of the times when you feel your best, and plan to do your important activities during those times. Ask for help when needed.
- Maintain your energy. Drinking lots of fluids and eating well can help keep your energy reserves up. If nausea and vomiting make it hard to eat, talk to your doctor about these side effects.
- Get moving. Moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, riding a bike and swimming, throughout the week may help you preserve your energy level. Exercise regularly as you start treatment. You’ll get in the routine of exercising, and it may even help you prevent fatigue during treatment.
If you haven’t exercised much lately, check with your doctor before you begin to make sure it’s safe. Then, start slow and work your way up to at least 150 minutes of exercise a week — or a half-hour of exercise on five days each week. Try to add strength training, such as lifting weights, a few times a week, too.
- Consider integrative medicine options. Some people with cancer find relief from fatigue through meditation, yoga and other mindfulness practices that encourage relaxation. Massage and acupuncture can be helpful, too. But check with your doctor to make sure these are safe, especially if your blood counts are low or if you’re taking blood thinners.
- Ask your doctor about supplements. Supplements that contain ginseng have been shown to relieve fatigue in small studies. If you’re interested in trying supplements, discuss them with your doctor, as ginseng and other supplements can interfere with medications.
Don’t assume the fatigue you’re experiencing is just part of the cancer experience. If it’s frustrating you or affecting your ability to go about your day, it’s time to talk with your doctor.