Medically reviewed by
Donny Huynh, MD
McLeod Oncology & Hematology Seacoast
Cancer patients often feel tired physically, mentally and emotionally. This is not surprising given the struggle and stress of testing, surgery, radiation therapy and the attack of chemotherapy on cancer cells.
“X-rays and lab tests can’t tell us about a cancer patient’s fatigue,” says McLeod Oncologist Dr. Donny Huynh. “It’s the patients who tell us. They complain of heaviness in arms and legs. They also have trouble concentrating and completing everyday tasks. They might be irritable and take less care in their personal appearance. Knowing more about the problem can help cancer patients deal with their fatigue.”
Here are 8 things to know about cancer-related fatigue:
- It’s Different. A healthy person can feel fatigue. Yet, after a good meal and a night’s sleep, they are recharged and refreshed. Cancer-related fatigue can last a long time. Patients receiving chemotherapywill feel fatigue get worse immediately after a treatment cycle. They’ll feel better in a while. Unfortunately, the fatigue will hit again when the next cycle begins. It usually – but not always — ends after treatment. Patients receiving radiation therapywill feel their fatigue increasing as their treatment progresses.
- You Need Rest. Trouble sleeping at night is a common problem. If you can’t get 7 to 8 hours a night, take several short naps – rather than one long one – during the day.
- You Need to Eat Right. Cancer treatments can cause a lack of appetite and nausea. Eat things you enjoy. Try to include some fruits and vegetables in your diet. Your cancer treatment is like a marathon. So, do what marathoners do – stay hydrated with plenty of water or juice.
- Exercise Helps. With cancer treatment you don’t feel like doing much. But the less you do, the less you will do. Talk to your doctor before you start any exercise plan. Moderate exercise – walking or gardening – can help raise the fog of your fatigue.
- Drugs, Not So Much. Recently, the American Society of Clinical Oncologists released guidelines on dealing with fatigue. It recommends a patient be screened for it. The committee, however, found limited data that supports treating fatigue with pharmacological therapy, specifically psychostimulants used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.
- We Don’t Know the Cause of Fatigue. Treatable causes for the fatigue have yet to be identified. Symptoms can be addressed to help a patient feel better with fatigue.
- You Can Manage Fatigue. At home, keep things you use often within easy reach. After a bath, sit down to dry off and get dressed. Wear loose fitting clothes that don’t have a lot of buttons. Plan ahead when you can. In any case, don’t rush.
- Finally, Get Help. If you are too tired to get out of bed for a 24-hour period, call your doctor. If you need to talk, turn to family and friends…or a cancer support group. If you feel it’s more than fatigue – it could be depression. See a counselor. Your doctor can recommend one.
Remember, today cancer is survivable – but you need to be proactive and share symptoms, such as fatigue, with your physician.
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Sources include: McLeod Health, National Institutes of Health, Cancer Research (UK), American Cancer Society, American Society of Clinical Oncology