Summary: There is no fatigue like that of cancer fatigue, and no other form of exhaustion that amounts to the signs and symptoms of this type of tiredness. Cancer fatigue is most often related to cancer treatment and the heavy doses of medications weighing the body down, although there can be other reasons and causes as well. Here you can learn the causes of this type of fatigue and how to work with it and through it. Discuss, with us, the varying ways of self-care and easing the chaos and stress in life to help you work through your cancer journey with fatigue.
Fatigue, which is described as feeling tired, seems to take on a new life and level of exhaustion when it is cancer fatigue. This type of extreme fatigue can result from the side effects of the cancer treatment or be a complication from the cancer itself. This fatigue is not the type of tired feeling that people often complain about. This cancer fatigue is unmatchable. It is often described as feeling weak, listless, drained or washed out. Many are too tired to do daily tasks, eat, or use the bathroom. For many, this fatigue is more disturbing and life-altering than the pain, nausea, vomiting or depression.
Here are some signs to watch for in regard to cancer-related fatigue in your family member or friend:
- You feel tired and it does not get better with rest or sleep, it keeps coming back, or it becomes severe.
- You are more tired than usual during or after an activity.
- You are feeling tired and it is not related to an activity.
- You are too tired to do the things you normally do.
- Your arms and legs feel heavy and hard to move.
- You have no energy.
- You feel weak.
- You spend more time in bed and sleep more. Or, you may have trouble sleeping.
- You stay in bed for more than twenty-four hours.
- You become confused or cannot concentrate or focus your thoughts.
- Your tiredness disrupts your work, social life, or daily routine.
It may be a difficult subject to address but talking about your cancer fatigue or your suspicions that your family member may be struggling can help to lessen the tension and help to work towards a solution. Being open and honest about how cancer is affecting your life will only benefit your personal healing and journey.
What causes cancer fatigue?
Cancer fatigue can be caused by a number of things. Certain possible factors include:
- Your cancer. Your cancer can cause changes to your body that can lead to fatigue. For example, some cancers release proteins called cytokines, which are thought to cause fatigue.
- Other cancers can increase your body’s need for energy, weaken your muscles, cause damage to certain organs, such as liver, kidney, heart or lungs; or alter your body’s hormones, all of which may contribute to fatigue.
- Cancer treatment. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, bone marrow transplantation and biological therapy may all cause fatigue. You may experience fatigue when chemotherapy or radiation therapy destroys healthy cells in addition to the targeted cancer cells.
- Fatigue may occur as your body tries to repair the damage to healthy cells and tissue. Some treatment side effects, such as anemia, nausea, vomiting, pain, insomnia and changes in mood, also may cause fatigue.
- Anemia. You might develop anemia if your treatment destroys too many healthy red blood cells. You can also develop anemia if the cancer has spread to your bone marrow and interferes with blood cell production or causes you to lose blood.
- Pain. If you experience chronic pain, you may be less active, eat less, sleep less and become depressed, all of which may add to your fatigue.
- Emotions. Anxiety, stress or depression associated with your cancer diagnosis also may lead to fatigue.
- Lack of sleep. If you are sleeping less at night or if your sleep is frequently interrupted, you may experience fatigue.
- Poor nutrition. In order to work efficiently, you need the energy that a healthy diet provides. When you have cancer, changes can occur in your need for and ability to process nutrients. These changes can lead to poor nutrition, resulting in fatigue.
- For example, you may need more nutrients than usual, or you may not be able to process nutrients adequately. You may also take in fewer nutrients if your appetite wanes or if treatment side effects, such as nausea and vomiting, make it difficult to eat.
- Medications. Certain medications, such as pain relievers and chemotherapy, can cause fatigue.
- Lack of exercise. If you are used to being on the go, slowing down can make you feel fatigued. Though you will have good days and bad days, try to maintain your normal level of activity if you can.
- Hormonal changes. Many hormonal changes can occur during cancer treatment. Hormonal therapies are a common method to treat certain cancers, and this change in the hormones in your body can lead to significant fatigue. Hormonal changes also may occur as side effects of treatments, such as surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Changes to the thyroid gland, adrenal glands, testes or ovaries can all cause fatigue.
Not everyone who has cancer experience this type of fatigue. If you do, the level of cancer fatigue you experience can vary. You may feel a mild lack of energy, or you may feel completely wiped out. Your cancer fatigue may occur episodically and last just a short while, or it may last for several months after your complete treatment.
Are there any ways I can help myself to relieve this fatigue at home?
Dealing with this cancer-related fatigue on your own may be difficult. There are things you can do on your own, in your own time, that may help to lessen the fatigue and exhaustion you are feeling. These are:
- 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. Limit or avoid caffeine and alcohol. If nausea and vomiting make it hard to eat, talk to your doctor about these side effects.
- Get moving. When you feel up to it, light exercise throughout the week may help you preserve your energy level. Exercise regularly as you start treatment. You will get in the routine of exercising, and it may even help you prevent fatigue during treatment.
Never automatically think that the fatigue or other side effects you are experiencing are normal, or just par for the course with cancer treatment. Speak up about your fatigue and be open and honest about how it is affecting your life and daily abilities to live. Yes, cancer-related fatigue is common, but that does not mean that you are forced to deal with it alone!
When should I contact my doctor about my cancer fatigue?
Experiencing some fatigue should be expected, but if you notice that this fatigue is persistent, lasts for weeks or months, or begins to interfere with your daily activities, do not wait to talk to your doctor. If you experience any of these symptoms, call your doctor right away.
- Worsening signs and symptoms
- Severe shortness of breath
- Inability to get out of bed for more than twenty-four hours
- Loss of balance
Your doctor may want to know more about your fatigue, and ask any or all of these questions:
- When did you begin experiencing fatigue?
- Has it progressed since your diagnosis?
- How severe is it?
- How long does it last?
- What eases it?
- What makes it worse?
- How does it affect your daily life?
- Do you experience shortness of breath or chest discomfort?
- How well are you sleeping?
- How and what are you eating?
- How are you feeling emotionally?
On top of these questions, your doctor may also order basic tests, blood tests or X-rays specific to your condition. They may review your medication list and offer some new suggestions. Your doctor will most likely discuss self-care methods or new medications to help ease your anxiety and control any depression. Often, fatigue is found to be the side effect of another cause, like anemia, or bone marrow function. Sleeping medications can also be given to help the patient achieve and return to a regular sleep schedule. Pain management and comfort also come in to play when fatigue is present.
If you are experiencing cancer fatigue, reach out to your doctors to have assistance in determining the best path for your condition and cancer journey. Be open and honest with your family members and caregivers about what is happening and keep your chin up!