Fatigue and Cancer Treatment

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Managing fatigue is an important part of your cancer treatment plan. Taking short walks and getting light exercise can actually increase most people’s energy level.

Credit: National Cancer Institute

Fatigue is a common side effect of many cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, biological therapy, bone marrow transplant, and surgery. Conditions such as anemia, as well as pain, medications, and emotions, can also cause or worsen fatigue.

People often describe cancer-related fatigue as feeling extremely tired, weak, heavy, run down, and having no energy. Resting does not always help with cancer-related fatigue. Cancer-related fatigue is one of the most difficult side effects for many people to cope with.

Tell your health care team if you feel extremely tired and are not able to do your normal activities or are very tired even after resting or sleeping. There are many causes of fatigue. Keeping track of your levels of energy throughout the day will help your doctor to assess your fatigue. Write down how fatigue affects your daily activities and what makes the fatigue better or worse.

Ways to Manage Fatigue

You may be advised to take these and other steps to feel better:

  • Make a plan that balances rest and activity. Choose activities that are relaxing for you. Many people choose to listen to music, read, meditate, practice guided imagery, or spend time with people they enjoy. Relaxing can help you save your energy and lower stress. Light exercise may also be advised by your doctor to give you more energy and help you feel better.
  • Plan time to rest. If you are tired, take short naps of less than 1 hour during the day. However, too much sleep during the day can make it difficult to sleep at night. Choose the activities that are most important to you and do them when you have the most energy. Ask for help with important tasks such as making meals or driving.
  • Eat and drink well. Meet with a registered dietitian to learn about foods and drinks that can increase your level of energy. Foods high in protein and calories will help you keep up your strength. Some people find it easier to eat many small meals throughout the day instead of three big meals. Stay well hydrated. Limit your intake of caffeine and alcohol.
  • Meet with a specialist. It may help to meet with a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. These experts help people to cope with difficult thoughts and feelings. Lowering stress may give you more energy. Since pain that is not controlled can also be major source of fatigue, it may help to meet with a pain or palliative care specialist..

NCI's Fatigue PDQ® summary has more information on how fatigue is assessed and treated. View the patient or health professional version.

Talking With Your Health Care Team about Fatigue

Prepare for your visit by making a list of questions to ask. Consider adding these questions to your list:

  • What is most likely causing my fatigue?
  • What should I keep track of and share so we can develop a plan to help me feel better?
  • What types of exercise (and how much) do you recommend for me?
  • How much rest should I have during the day? How much sleep should I get at night?
  • What food and drinks are best for me?
  • Are there treatments or medicines that could help me feel better?

What to do about fatigue caused by cancer treatments such as radiation therapy.
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