What is cancer-related fatigue?
Cancer-related fatigue is a condition marked by extreme tiredness and the inability to function because energy is lacking. People with cancer-related fatigue may say they feel tired, weak, exhausted, weary, worn-out, heavy or slow. It’s a common occurrence in people with cancer (it occurs in 14% to 96% of cancer patients), especially people who are receiving cancer treatment.
Fatigue can be described as a condition that causes distress and decreased ability to function due to a lack of energy. Specific symptoms may be physical, psychological, or emotional. To be treated effectively, fatigue related to cancer and cancer treatment needs to be distinguished from other kinds of fatigue.
Causes of fatigue
There are things that contribute to fatigue in patients with cancer. Possible factors include the following:
- Cancer treatment
- Weight loss and loss of appetite
- Changes in metabolism
- Decreased levels of hormones
- Emotional distress
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of strength and muscle coordination
- Other medical conditions, in addition to cancer
How long will the fatigue last?
Fatigue may be acute or chronic. Acute fatigue is normal tiredness with occasional symptoms that start quickly and do not last long. Rest may ease the fatigue, and the person may return to his or her normal level of functioning. Chronic fatigue is long lasting, and it is not completely relieved by rest. Chronic fatigue is diagnosed in both people with and without cancer. In patients with cancer the ability to quickly return to normal is diminished. Cancer-related fatigue lasts longer than the fatigue experienced occasionally by healthy people, and sleep often does not improve the condition. How long the fatigue will last and the degree of fatigue each patient feels depends on various factors, such as the type and schedule of treatment.
What are signs of cancer-related fatigue?
Signs of this form of fatigue include:
- Feeling tired out, even after having slept
- No energy to perform regular activities
- Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
- Feeling negative, irritable, impatient, or unmotivated
- Lacking interest in everyday activities
- Not paying the same usual attention to one’s personal appearance
- Sleeping more or spending more time in bed
Determining treatment for cancer-related fatigue
To determine the cause and best treatment for fatigue, the patient’s fatigue pattern must be determined, and all factors causing the fatigue should be identified. These factors include assessing the history of the fatigue pattern, type of disease, treatment history, current medications, a complete physical examination, a psychological profile (including an evaluation for depression), as well as other factors. This is something you would discuss with your doctor.
Ways to help manage cancer-related fatigue
Just as every cancer patient’s treatment is different, the fatigue they have will be different, too. While one person may feel very tired, another may not. And one person’s fatigue may last much longer than another person’s. Here are some things you can do on your own to help overcome fatigue.
- Appropriate rest. Take short naps or breaks (30 minutes or less), rather than one long rest period. Too much rest can decrease your energy level. If you have trouble sleeping, talk to your health care team.
- Stay as active as you can. Regular moderate exercise, such as walking, is helpful.
- Conserve your energy. Prioritize your activities and take rest breaks between activities.
- Avoid standing for long periods of time and avoid extreme temperatures.
- Ask for help with specific things that tire you out.
- Consider joining a support group.
- Eat wisely and well. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids and try to eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. It is important that you eat enough protein and consume enough calories to help your body can heal.
- Call your doctor if you experience any of these conditions: feeling too tired to get out of bed for a 24-hour period, feeling confused, dizzy, if you lose your balance or fall, have problems waking up, problems catching your breath, or if you find the fatigue seems to be getting worse.