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Fatigue: A common complaint among cancer patients

March 21, 2017 | by CTCA

fatigue
When you’re healthy and having trouble keeping your eyes open in a mid-afternoon meeting, getting an extra hour or two of sleep may be all it takes to renew your energy. When you have cancer, though, rest often isn’t enough.

When you’re healthy and having trouble keeping your eyes open in a mid-afternoon meeting, getting an extra hour or two of sleep may be all it takes to renew your energy. When you have cancer, though, rest often isn’t enough. Even after a few nights of extra sleep, many cancer patients still feel tired and unable to complete normal, everyday activities.

If that sounds familiar, it may mean you are more than tired. If you are like most cancer patients, you may have a clinical case of fatigue. According to the National Cancer Institute, fatigue is the most common side effect of cancer treatment and is especially prevalent and long-lasting among patients who are older, who have advanced-stage cancer or who receive more than one type of treatment. 

At the beginning of treatment, many cancer patients are already feeling emotionally and physically drained from their diagnosis, medical tests and, for some, initial surgery. Once treatment begins, that sluggishness may intensify into full-blown fatigue. Unlike situational bouts of exhaustion or weariness, fatigue is characterized by a persistent lack of energy and/or weakness. Think about that grocery trip that suddenly seems too much to tackle. A condition that may affect you at any time during your cancer journey, fatigue may develop because your treatment is causing nausea and vomiting, depleting your vitamin and nutrient levels. Or it may begin because you’re losing weight or muscle mass. It also may result from pain or an inability to move around as much as you once did.

To diagnose fatigue, your doctor will likely ask questions to see how much your lack of energy is affecting your quality of life. Those questions may gauge the severity of certain symptoms you may also be experiencing, such as: 

  • Pain
  • Lethargy
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Nausea
  • Drowsiness
  • Lack of appetite
  • Sadness
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Vomiting

Your doctor may also want to know whether your symptoms have affected your: 

  • Mood
  • Productivity at work
  • Social interactions with others
  • Enjoyment of life

If left untreated, fatigue may lead to depression, which may affect your ability to stay on your treatment regimen. If you don’t have enough energy to cook healthy meals for yourself, for example, you may experience unintentional weight gain, which may make you feel down and uninterested in activities you once enjoyed. The domino effect may make you too sick or weak to continue treatment. “When you have fatigue, you tend to gravitate toward foods that are easier to prepare, like highly processed or junk food,” says Crystal Langlois, Director of Nutrition at our hospital near Atlanta. “While healthier foods may take longer to prepare, they actually might make you feel better,”

The same applies when you don’t have enough energy to go to the gym. If you don’t exercise, you’re more likely to experience fatigue. In fact, a new study found that exercise and psychological interventions may be powerful tools in combatting cancer-related fatigue. The study, published this month in JAMA Oncology, followed more than 11,000 cancer survivors and compared how exercise, counseling and drugs affected their fatigue. The researchers concluded that exercise and psychological interventions, such as counseling and tips on making healthy lifestyle changes, had better results than drugs in helping the study participants manage fatigue.

Even as you work to boost your energy levels, though, don’t expect to have the same bounce in your step that you did before your diagnosis. Your cancer and treatments are likely to continue to affect your energy levels, Langlois says. “It’s an essential truth that caregivers may be able to help cancer patients accept,” she says. “They can try to help patients by guiding them and pushing them when appropriate, but also by helping them understand that they simply may not be able to do everything they used to do, at least for the time being.”