What is Cancer Fatigue and How to Cope With It?

Dr Gunes Dr Hossami

Dr. Adem Günes & Dr. Abdulla El-Hossami

What is Cancer Fatigue and How to Cope With It?

Anyone 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.However, the exact causes for this are not known.

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

Fatigue is usually described as feeling tired, exhausted and weak.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.

You can list the causes of fatigue thus

  • Cancer itself
  • Cancer treatment
  • Anemia
  • Pain
  • Emotions
  • Lack of sleep
  • Poor nutrition
  • Medications
  • Lack of exercise
  • Hormonal changes

Indeed, not every cancer patient experiences the same level of fatigue. The fatigue in some patients may last for a short time while for others it may last longer.

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, and you find it difficult to do your everyday task, 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 evaluate the severity.

The doctor will assess this and the nature of the symptoms through some queries like

  • When did you begin experiencing fatigue
  • How severe it is
  • Is there progression since the diagnosis
  • How long does it last
  • How does it ease
  • What makes it worse
  • How does it affect your daily life
  • Is there chest discomfort or shortness of breath
  • What is the sleep pattern and quality
  • How are your appetite and hunger
  • How do you feel emotionally

The doctor may do some physical tests like x-rays,

scans, blood tests, and more based on your experience and would want to know your medical history.

Yes, you will need some help and know about the coping strategies to minimize your trouble due to fatigue. Once the results are out, the doctors may suggest some coping strategies, and they may not be just one; but many methods to help reduce the symptoms and make the fatigue bearable. Indeed, coping with this is essential, and with some of the self-care methods suggested along with some medications, it will become easy. In rare cases, when anemia causes fatigue, the doctor may recommend a blood transfusion as a temporary measure. You may get some medications prescribed to stimulate blood marrow to increase the production of red blood cells, which will help you overcome anemia. Also, the doctor may prescribe medications to improve sleep and depression. The doctor may suggest a few self-care options like conserving your energy and doing exercise. It is vital to work with your doctor to alleviate the symptoms of fatigue and deal with your body condition and pave the way for your better health.

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