Miskawaan Integrative Cancer Care

Cancer fatigue

What Is Cancer Fatigue and How to Cope With It?

A diagnosis of cancer is undoubtedly a life-changing experience. This disease, in all its many forms, can take its toll on the individual physically, emotionally and mentally. People feel overwhelmed, out of control, and they can suffer from depression and anxiety.

One common effect of the disease and many of the subsequent treatments is cancer fatigue. Here we take a closer look at what this involves and how cancer patients can effectively manage it as they work towards recovery.

What is Cancer Fatigue?

Tiredness and exhaustion are common symptoms for both those who have cancer and who undergo treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. 

The severity of cancer fatigue can vary depending on the cancer type and also from person to person. 

Some may receive treatments such as chemotherapy without much fatigue. Others find it debilitating and intensely upsetting. Fatigue can occur for just a short time or be prolonged, sometimes lasting for weeks.

Symptoms of Fatigue

Man suffering from cancer fatigue

An individual may lack energy or can’t be bothered to do the things they normally enjoy during the day. They could have difficulty sleeping at night and wake up feeling tired and lacklustre. 

  • They may be over-anxious or depressed which can affect their mental outlook. 
  • Some people will have physical symptoms such as painful joints and muscles that make it difficult to move around. 
  • The patient might get out of breath doing even the simplest tasks. 

Others can find it difficult to concentrate and even talking to a friend will be hard work. Fatigue may also lead to negative feelings that compound that sense of tiredness and cause it to deepen.

Causes of Cancer Fatigue

Several factors will likely contribute to the level of fatigue experience by the patient. These factors include:

1. The Cancer Itself

Cancer is invasive and will cause changes to the body that can lead to fatigue because of physical and biological changes. 

For example, the release of cytokines by cancer cells is thought to have a direct link to tiredness. Organs can also become damaged and muscles weakened which quickly saps energy levels.

2. The Cancer Treatment

Most of the major conventional cancer treatments are likely to cause fatigue, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. 

A treatment like chemotherapy essentially involves putting medicine into the body to kill cancer cells. This can cause side effects which may be difficult to manage, such as nausea and vomiting. 

People may also develop anaemia if red blood cells are damaged, something which reduces oxygen getting to the rest of the body and has a consequence on energy levels. 

3. Pain

Unfortunately, pain is often present with a cancer diagnosis and continues following surgery and other treatment. This may be temporary as the individual recovers but in many cases, it can be chronic and means people are less mobile. 

4. Hormonal Changes

Hormone treatment is sometimes used in cancer treatment and can disturb the balance within the body, leading to fatigue. The cancer itself can impact the organs that distribute vital hormones which play a significant role in how energetic we feel.

5. Loss of Sleep

Woman unable to sleep due to cancer fatigue

With issues such as chronic pain and the general stress caused from receiving a cancer diagnosis, many patients will find themselves suffering from poor sleep and this can have an impact on energy levels both in the short and long-term.

6. Emotional Challenges

Anyone who is diagnosed with cancer will have some level of emotional or mental health challenge to face. 

Some cope with it reasonably well. Others find themselves becoming overly anxious or depressed. This bubbling up of feelings generally leads to feelings of tiredness, sometimes for lengthy periods.

7. Diet and Exercise

It can be difficult to focus on diet and exercise when there has been a diagnosis of cancer. In the initial stages, it is probably less important than everything else which is going on. Following surgery, for example, exercising may not be possible at all. 

As treatment and recovery progress, however, eating an unhealthy diet or not exercising can lead to greater levels of fatigue being experienced by the patient.

How Long Can Fatigue Last?

This varies from person to person. One individual might have episodic moments of fatigue that quickly disappear. Others can find their tiredness lasting for weeks. Much depends on the type of cancer, the treatment being undertaken and the individual’s personal health status.

Management of Cancer-related Fatigue

If the fatigue is related to treatment, there may be a medical solution for patients. For example, if they have anaemia, blood transfusion can help. Other medications can reduce depression, improve appetite or help someone get a good nights sleep. 

The key for individuals is not to be hard on themselves. Fatigue is part of the normal healing process and accepting that it will happen can help manage things better. Taking it easy and conserving energy when it most matters may help. 

Patients should also make sure they eat a reasonably healthy diet and drink plenty of fluids and, if possible, try to do some moderate exercise such as taking a walk to keep energy levels up. Practices such as yoga, meditation and massage can also help. 

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