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Fatigue is a feeling of tiredness that can keep you from doing things you normally do or want to do.  Fatigue is very common among people receiving cancer treatments. Factors such as cancer itself, low blood counts, nutritional problems, anxiety and depression, sleep problems and medications can contribute to fatigue. Individuals with cancer have described fatigue as weakness; exhaustion; tiredness; a lack of energy; sleepiness; confusion; or impatience. Others have described fatigue as “just don’t feel like myself”.

Fatigue can affect the way you think as well as how you feel. You may need more sleep. You may have trouble paying attention when reading, watching television even talking with family members. You may find that you are not able to do all activities you did before cancer treatment. The cause of cancer treatment-related fatigue is not fully known. Problems like low blood count, sleep disruption, stress, along with other factors, may contribute to fatigue.

You may experience specific signs of fatigue such as:

  • You feel weary or exhausted. It may be physical, emotional, and/or mental exhaustion
  • Your body, especially your arms and legs, may feel very heavy
  • You have less desire to do normal activities like eating or shopping
  • You may find it hard to concentrate or think clearly

There are many ways to manage your fatigue during treatment:

  • Rest – Rest and Sleep are important, but do not overdo it.  Too much rest can decrease your energy level.  In other words, the more you rest, the more tired you will feel.  If you have trouble sleeping talk to your doctor or nurse.
  • Activity – Stay as active as you can. Regular exercise like walking several times each week may help
  • Nutrition – Drink plenty of liquids. Eat as well as you can, and eat nutritious foods 
  • Energy Conservation – You can do more by spreading your activities throughout the day. Take rest breaks between activities. Rest breaks save energy for the things you want to do. Let others help you with meals, housework, or errands.  Do not force yourself to do more than you can manage.
  • Energy Restoration – Do activities that you enjoy and make you feel good.  Many people enjoy nature activities such as bird watching or gardening.  Try listening to music, or visiting with friends and family, or looking at pleasant pictures. Try to do these activities at least three times per week.
  • Listen to relaxation tapes to help calm and relieve the overall stress in your life. 

There are many ways to help cope with cancer-related fatigue. Everyone experiences fatigue and treatments differently. You many not feel tired while someone else does, or your fatigue may not last as long as someone else’s does. Here are some tips to help you cope with fatigue:

  • Plan your day so that you have time to rest
  • Take short naps or breaks rather than one, long rest period
  • Eat as well as you can, and drink plenty of fluids
  • Take short walks or do light exercise if possible.  You may find this helps with fatigue.
  • Try activities that are less strenuous, like listening to music or reading
  • Become comfortable having others do something that you usually do
  • See what helps you feel less tired, and make those activities a priority for you

You may be advised to “take it easy” and “get plenty of rest”. Sometimes staying in bed over a long period of time can slow your body down and cause you to feel even more tired. Do not push yourself to do more than you can do.  Ask your family and friends to help you with tasks you find difficult or taxing, like mowing the lawn or grocery shopping.  It may be difficult for family members to understand if rest does not make your fatigue go away.  Explaining that the fatigue you feel is different from the fatigue you had before treatment may help them understand.

If you experience the following symptoms you should report them to your nurse:

  • Get dizzy
  • Feel a loss of balance when walking
  • Feel a loss of balance when getting out of bed or getting out of a chair
  • Fall or hurt yourself
  • Have a problem waking up
  • Have a problem catching your breath
  • Have a sudden increase in fatigue

Resource: “Fight Fatigue: It Helps!”, Oncology Nursing Society, 1999.