Fatigue in People With Cancer

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Tips for managing fatigue

Doctors, nurses, social workers, physical therapists, nutritionists, and a number of others might be involved in treating your fatigue. Education and counseling can be important parts of helping you learn how to save energy, reduce stress, and distract yourself from the fatigue.

Fatigue is often caused by more than one problem. Treating a certain problem, like anemia, might make you feel better, but other things may need to be done, too. For this reason your health care team might have you try many different things to help manage your fatigue.

It can be hard even for the doctor to figure out exactly what’s causing your fatigue. Still, a program of regular exercise, managing your stress, and finding ways to deal with anxiety and depression seem to help most people. Treating sleep problems and correcting nutrition problems also help fatigue. Keep in mind that it can take up to 8 weeks of treatment before you notice your fatigue getting better, though for some people it could happen faster.

Save your energy

Conserving (or saving) energy is one way to make sure you have enough energy to do what needs to be done each day. You may need to accept the fact that you can’t do everything you want to do. Each day, decide which things are the most important to you and focus on those tasks. Do things slowly, so that you won’t use too much energy at once. Let others help you. This can help them feel useful and get your tasks done, too.

Use distraction

Sometimes feeling tired can become so discouraging and frustrating that it’s easy to let it become all you think about. Try to distract yourself with other things, like listening to music, having relaxing visits with friends or family, or reading a book. These things can give you an escape from your fatigue without using up too much energy.

Use attention-restoring activities

Certain activities can help you relax, and focus better. These activities include things like walking in a park, sitting in a peaceful setting, gardening, doing volunteer work not related to your illness, or bird watching. Some people use meditation or guided imagery to clear their minds without leaving home.

Reduce stress

Having cancer is stressful and cancer treatment can cause even more stress. Talk with a social worker or nurse on your health care team about your level of stress. This can help you know if it’s “normal” stress or more worrisome anxiety or depression. Feeling tired might be linked to feeling depressed and anxious. Support groups, mental health counseling, stress management training, and relaxation exercises are some ways you can learn to improve the feelings related to fatigue and help overcome the tiredness you feel.

Exercise

Research has shown that there are some ways other than medicines to improve your energy and activity level. Aerobic and strength-building exercise programs – started only with your doctor’s OK – can lead to better body function, as well as feeling better about your life and well-being. You may need to see a physical therapist to build stamina and learn the best exercise routines for you to follow at this time.

Talk to your doctor first and always be careful about exercising if you have any of these:

  • Cancer that has spread to your bones (bone metastasis)
  • A low white blood cell count
  • A low platelet count
  • A fever or active infection
  • Anemia
  • Unsteadiness, frailty, or other problem that might make exercise unsafe for you

These factors can lead to injury, pain, bleeding, or other problems if they aren’t taken into account before you start to exercise. If you have any of these factors, your exercise program will need to be set up by a professional who knows about exercise and cancer.

Not only can exercise help fatigue, it can also help you sleep better. Another benefit of exercise is that it can make your mood better, too.

Get nutrition counseling

Many cancer patients have changes in the way they eat, swallow, and taste things during treatment. Talking with a registered dietitian may help you learn ways to manage problems like loss of appetite, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting. The dietitian also can make sure you are getting enough fluids and nutrients to help keep your blood chemistry balanced.

Improve sleep

Sleep problems are common during cancer treatment. You may have trouble falling asleep or sleep too much. Certain drugs used to treat pain, nausea, or depression can make a person feel tired and sleepy. Talk with your doctor about this. Sometimes adjusting the doses or changing to a different drug can help.

Sleep experts tell us that having regular times to go to bed and get up helps us keep a healthy sleep routine. Avoiding caffeine in fluids (like coffee, tea, energy drinks, or soda), medicines (like headache remedies), or even in foods (like chocolate) for at least 8 hours before bed can help, too. Exercising too late in the evening might cause sleep problems. You might need naps, but try to keep them short (under an hour) and early in the day so they don’t interfere with nighttime sleep. If you’re having trouble sleeping, it can help to see a mental health professional who can work with you on causes and how to address sleep problems.

Ask about medicines

There’s no magic pill that can make you less tired and give you more energy. But there are some medicines that might help you with fatigue. In some cases, fatigue can be bad enough that your doctor or nurse recommends a stimulant medicine for a short time. Examples of this type of medicine are methylphenidate hydrochloride (Ritalin®) or modafanil (Provigil®). These have been shown to help at least a little with fatigue. Anti-depressant drugs and steroids have also been used to try and help fatigue.

If you’re having problems sleeping, your doctor or nurse may suggest a medicine to help you sleep.

More research is needed and is being done in this area, but there are drugs available that may give you relief if your fatigue gets bad.


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