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What is Cancer Fatigue and How to Cope With It?

Dr. Adem Günes & Dr. Abdulla El-Hossami

What is Cancer Fatigue and How to Cope With It?

Anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer will know that fatigue is a significant part of the disease. This kind of semi-permanent tiredness occurs not just as a side-effect of cancer itself but also because of treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

But what exactly is cancer fatigue and how can it be overcome?

A search online will uncover all sorts of articles about fatigue, many of which are often conflated with general tiredness.

We can be tired if we don’t have enough sleep, have worked too hard or have a cold or the flu that leaves us run down. Rest and sleep, as well as a healthy lifestyle, help us to recharge our batteries and recover our energy.

Cancer fatigue is more specific and is related to the disease and the treatment being undertaken or a mixture of both. It is generally deeply rooted and will persist even after the patient has had a rest and a good night’s sleep.

Symptoms include loss of vitality and energy with individuals preferring to stay in bed rather than get up and do something. It can be hard to get going in the morning and sleep may be disturbed, which makes things worse.

There may also be physical symptoms such as muscle soreness or becoming short of breath when doing even minor tasks.

The majority of people who have been diagnosed with cancer will experience some level of fatigue. One study found that 83.3% of patients with cancer experienced it at some stage during their treatment.

There are several reasons why cancer-related fatigue occurs. The first is down to the type of cancer and the changes it causes in the body. Some cancers promote the release of cytokines, for example, which have been shown to cause fatigue.

Treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy all have side effects that cause various levels of fatigue. Worry and lack of sleep can also lead to greater general tiredness, as can poor nutrition and the presence of chronic pain.

Living with fatigue as well as a cancer diagnosis is immensely challenging but there are things individuals can do to help themselves cope. It’s important to not completely accept fatigue as part of life but find strategies that relieve tiredness and improve quality of life.

There may be some things that the individual can change which will improve their energy levels. For instance, medication may have side effects, pain relief could improve sleep at night and tackling something like anemia can boost red blood cells.

Undertaking regular exercise, going for a walk or swimming can help combat fatigue. It’s important, however, to get the advice of a physician about what exercise is the safest. With fatigue, half the battle is building up the energy to do something.

Diet plays an important role in our energy levels, even when we are completely healthy. When a patient is being treated for cancer, it can be challenging to maintain a healthy diet. Plenty of fruits and vegetables and staying hydrated should be a priority, even if it means grazing on food rather than eating a big meal.

One key way to combat cancer-related fatigue is to regularly get a good night’s sleep. It can be beneficial to look at individual sleeping habits and whether, for example, avoiding caffeine or going to bed at the same time every night makes a difference.

There is some evidence that having regular massages can help improve sleep and relieve stress all of which should contribute to reducing cancer fatigue.

Talking with other people who have experienced similar issues can be another good option. It’s highly likely that there is someone who has been through the same challenges and finding out how they coped and what strategies they used to improve their cancer fatigue can be very useful.

Cancer fatigue can make patients feel they are losing control of their lives and compound other worries about work, family life and the future. While there may be times when all the individual just wants to do is curl up in bed and sleep, having plans in place can make a big difference.

Certainly, cancer fatigue will affect most patients but if the tiredness persists and begins to become a problem, it’s also important to reach out and get professional advice from a healthcare professional.

If an individual has issues such as dizziness, loss of balance, are too tired to get out of bed or their symptoms are worsening, it’s certainly important to seek medical advice as soon as possible.

A doctor will be able to order tests to see if there is another medical issue, such as anemia, that needs to be solved or they may look at the type of medication that is currently being used.

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We don't believe in hopeless cases!

With more than 50 year experience in integrative cancer medicine, we have treated many difficult cases, and we believe there is hope.