Cancer fatigue is when you feel very weak and exhausted during cancer treatment. You may struggle to complete daily tasks. Fatigue can last for weeks or even years.
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Cancer and the side effects of treatment cause this condition. If your body is already weakened by cancer when treatment begins, then it is even more difficult to handle the side effects.
These conditions are caused by cancer or cancer treatment and can add to fatigue:
, which can kill red blood cells and affect the blood-forming cells in bone marrow
Poor nutrition and
—due to loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting
Lack of oxygen—due to fewer red blood cells, which carry oxygen
Hormonal changes—due to hormonal therapies, side effects of treatment, or type of cancer, such as
Lack of sleepDepressionStressPainSide effects of medicines
These factors increase your chance of developing cancer fatigue:
Undergoing cancer treatment (eg, chemotherapy,
, biologic response modifier therapy)
Worsening of cancerHaving a pre-existing condition (eg, poor nutrition, breathing impairment)Having a history of depression or having family members with depression
Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors.
If you have any of these symptoms do not assume it is due to cancer fatigue. These symptoms may be caused by other conditions. Tell your doctor if you have any of these:
Extreme fatigue that is far worse than ordinary fatigue and that is not relieved by sleepNo energy to do basic tasks, such as cooking dinner, making the bed, or answering the doorTrouble concentrating and rememberingDizzinessHeaviness of arms and legsPoor balanceShortness of breathImpatience, irritability
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and do a physical exam. You may be asked:
Have your symptoms been worsening? When do your symptoms appear and how long do they last?What medications are you taking?How often do you sleep and for how long?What are you eating?What makes you feel better? Worse?Have you been depressed?How has your work status and financial condition been affected by cancer?What kind of support system do you have?
Your doctor may also use a questionnaire to assess your fatigue.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include the following:
Your doctor may prescribe:
Medicines to treat the underlying condition (such as anemia)AntidepressantsStimulants
Your doctor may recommend that you try these approaches:
Do a light to moderate program. This may be to
15-30 minutes a day.
Learn your exercise limits.Identify the times of day when you have the most energy.
Follow proper sleep and relaxation techniques:
Relax before bed by listening to music or reading.Try not to nap for more than one hour.Get at least eight hours of sleep.
To help you have more control, schedule time to:
Talk with a
to help you cope with your diagnosis.
Talk with your employer about your work schedule and workload.Talk with a financial advisor to help you with your costs and to plan for the future.
Cancer fatigue is one of the most common side effects of cancer. Because there are so many causes of cancer fatigue, there may not be a way to prevent it. But, there may be ways to reduce it. Talk to your doctor. Also talk to your family and friends to help you cope with your condition.
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Minton O, Richardson A, Sharpe M, Hotopf M, Stone PA. A systematic review and meta-analysis of the pharmacological treatment of cancer-related fatigue.
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Stedman’s Medical Dictionary.
28th ed. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2005; 298.
Last reviewed November 2012 by Mohei Abouzied, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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