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Fatigue is being tired – physically, mentally, and emotionally. It means having less energy to do the things you need or want to do.

In people with cancer, fatigue can be caused by the cancer itself, cancer treatment, side effects, and more. Fatigue can last a long time, even after treatment ends. It can affect your mood, employment, daily routines, self-care, recreation, relationships, and your sense of self.

The fatigue that comes with cancer, called cancer-related fatigue, is different from the fatigue of daily life. Everyday, normal fatigue usually doesn’t last long and most often gets better when you rest. Cancer-related fatigue is worse and it causes more distress. It’s not the tired feeling people remember having before they had cancer. People describe it as feeling weak, listless, drained, or “washed out.” Some may feel too tired to eat, walk to the bathroom, or even use the TV remote. It can be hard to think, as well as move your body. Rest does not make it go away, and just a little activity can exhaust you. For some people, this kind of fatigue causes more distress than pain, nausea, vomiting, or depression.

Cancer-related fatigue can:

  • Differ from one day to the next in how bad it is and how much it bothers you
  • Be overwhelming and make it hard for you to feel well
  • Make it hard for you to be with your friends and family
  • Make it hard for you to do your normal activities, including going to work
  • Make it harder for you to follow your cancer treatment plan
  • Last different lengths of time, which makes it hard to guess how long yours will go on

Many people with cancer say fatigue is the most distressing side effect of cancer and its treatment – it can have a major effect on a person’s quality of life.

Fatigue is very common in people with cancer

Cancer-related fatigue is the most common side effect of cancer and cancer treatment. Research suggests that anywhere from 40% to 100% of people with cancer have fatigue. But even though fatigue is a very distressing symptom, doctors and nurses don’t focus on it, and patients and caregivers seldom report it. This may be why there’s so much variation in the rates of fatigue.

It may be hard for them to talk about it, but it’s common for people with cancer to have fatigue. Someone on your health care team should be able to help you if they know you’re having this problem. Talk to them about your fatigue and how it’s affecting your life. Fatigue management is part of good cancer care.

Last Medical Review: 10/09/2014
Last Revised: 10/22/2014