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Seven Tips to Help Deal with Cancer-Related Fatigue

What word comes to mind when you hear someone mention the “f” word? Okay, after that one. And on a side note, since cancer, do you find that your tongue has loosened just a bit? If you know what I mean, and I’m guessing you do. (Mine has anyway.)

Then there is that other “f” word many of us struggle with, and yes, I mean “fat”. I wrote about that one here.

And then, there is that third “f” word many cancer patients become all too acquainted with—fatigue.

This is the perfect time of year to talk about fatigue, but of course, any time is perfect when talking specifically about cancer fatigue.

With the holidays fast approaching, you undoubtedly have a long to-do list, and if you are also dealing with cancer treatment or collateral damage from cancer treatment, you understand about cancer fatigue all too well.

Cancer fatigue is very real. The specific medical term is cancer-related fatigue (CRF), and is defined by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network as follows:

Cancer-related fatigue (CRF) has been defined as a distressing, persistent, subjective sense of physical, emotional, and/or cognitive tiredness or exhaustion related to cancer and/or cancer treatment that is not proportional to recent activity and interferes with usual functioning.

Sometimes cancer fatigue lasts for months, even years after treatment ends. Obviously, patients who are metastatic likely deal with it for their rest of their lives because treatments do not end.

(From here on out, I’ll refer to it as cancer fatigue.)

It’s important for patients and caregivers to acknowledge and try to understand cancer fatigue.

Validation alone is helpful and almost makes you feel a little less tired, in and of itself. (Well, maybe not, but you get my point.)

It’s important to let your doctor know if you are really struggling with cancer fatigue. It could be a sign of depression, which is pretty common during cancer treatment (and after), or it might be a signal that something else is amiss and might need to be addressed.

As always, do not suffer in silence.

Cancer fatigue is different from just feeling tired as most people know it. Cancer fatigue is in a whole different ballpark.

(The American Cancer Society offers further information and specific symptoms here.)

Of course, the irony is that despite feeling so tired, often getting a good night’s sleep is nearly impossible due to lots of reasons.

When I was undergoing chemotherapy, fatigue was definitely a major side effect for me. Some days it was a struggle to do much of anything and I often found myself falling asleep, or wanting to, when I certainly wasn’t planning on a nap. Even now, I tire more easily and often struggle with sleep issues, probably partly due to the aromatase inhibitor I’m on. But that’s a different post.

What are the causes of cancer fatigue?

Like so many health-related issues, the causes can be complex and intertwined. Cancer treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy directly impact blood cell counts. Other contributing factors can include: pain, sleep issues, medications, lack of activity, poor nutrition, emotional stress, trying to keep up with work and other responsibilities, and of course, a wide variety of other non-cancer related health issues a person might have.

So, how do you cope with cancer fatigue?

Of course, everyone’s situation is different, and I certainly don’t claim to have the answers, but here are a few suggestions that might help. I hope you’ll share any you might have with a comment at the end of this post.

1.  First of all, ditch the guilt.

Cancer treatment of any kind is hard on a person’s body and psyche too. Do not feel badly about feeling tired.  Just do not.

2.  Listen to your body.

Your body is working super hard during treatment (and beyond). When your body is telling you to sleep, try to listen and, well, sleep.

Of course, many of us have kids, jobs, pets and homes to run, so this is easier said than done. Try to rest when you can, even if it means taking a nap an hour (or less) after you just got up.

3.  Along with the above, lower your expectations.

Who cares if your house isn’t as clean as it used to be? It’s likely no one does, other than you perhaps. It’s all about prioritizing. Do what needs to be done most and let the other stuff slide. Some stuff can slide for quite a while too.

4.  Ask for help.

This comes up time and time again when talking about cancer.

So why is it so hard to do?

We like to think we can handle anything and everything on our own I guess. But cancer is like having a full-time job and you can realistically only handle so many things in a 24-hour day. And if you’re metastatic, well, you really have to pace yourself and assemble a list of people to call on who are willing and able to help you out when you need it. And you will.

You might want to read, HELP! Seven Tips to Make Asking for It Easier.

5.  Eat as healthy as you can and try to squeeze in some movement too.

Obviously, proper nutrition is important during cancer treatment (and beyond) too. If this is an area you need help with, speak with a registered nutritionist or dietitian.

Some days it feels really hard, okay, impossible to squeeze in exercise of any sort, but try to move a little bit each day even if it’s only walking to your mailbox. Exercise really does energize. Plus, it promotes a general feeling of well-being, cancer or no cancer.

Think about signing up for a class. The YMCA Livestrong program is excellent. There are places that offer classes specific to cancer patients, depending on where you live, of course.

6.  Figure out what time of day is most productive for you.

After you do this, you can plan activities and chores accordingly. This helps you see patterns and might help you feel more in control of your day.

This is another time when journaling (if you’re not too tired) can come in handy.

You might want to read, Twelve Tips for Journaling through Life’s Challenges.

7.  Always have a plan B (escape plan).

It’s always wise to have a back-up plan because you never know when or where cancer fatigue will kick in and become debilitating. In other words, have an escape plan. And do not feel badly if you need to use it.

Also, when asked to go out, attend an event or whatever, never hesitate to just say, no. And there’s no need to explain. Your polite “no thank you” needs no justification.

Remember, rest is never a luxury, it’s always essential to your well-being. But during cancer treatment (and beyond), it’s even more important.

So those are my tips for coping with cancer fatigue. 

Why not share one or two of yours?

Regardless of what point you’re at in your cancer experience, are you experiencing CRF?

What’s one of your tips for coping with fatigue?

Do you have a tip specific to the holidays?

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7 Tips for Coping with Cancer-Related Fatigue. #cancer #breastcancer #chemotherapy #radiation #MBC

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Lesley

Thursday 6th of May 2021

On the 'swear words' theme - I have a new mug which fits the bill perfectly! There's a twirling unicorn. It also bears the lyrics (to tune of "old MacDonald had a farm") "with a f..k f..k here and a f..k f..k there, here a f..k, there a f..k, I don't give a f..k f..k" I bought it in Etsy, when I saw it I knew I needed it in my life! I may not say the word out loud (much) and I'm a (reasonably) sweet 57 year-old but trust me, I'm thinking this phrase in many occasions!

Lesley

Thursday 6th of May 2021

Very helpful information, helps me feel less guilty. Your posts are a great help in this weird 'new country' called cancer! I've had a reasonably uneventful cancer journey since diagnosis in Nov 2019 at regular mammogram (no symptoms), so why so weary when I do so little? (Ok, I've had lumpectomy, chemo, radiotherapy, letrozol, herceptin, ramipril, ... but still, why so weary?!) I'm learning to 'do' rather than 'overdo' but it's frustrating. I go for a daily 'plod' in the countryside in my doorstep (Ulverston,Cumbria,uk) & can rack up many thousands of steps going at a snail's pace - it's my therapy also! Covid-19 didn't help, I had to shield so my muscles lost strength from lack of use. I'm worrying about getting fit enough to go back to working in busy hotel housekeeping department, but I know I won't be expected to go at 100% speed from day one (and I'm currently in furlough anyway) - more guilt, I suppose! Thank you for a chance to get this off my chest - I don't moan usually but I feel I can be honest here.

Linda

Tuesday 24th of November 2020

I hate to play devil's s advocate, but sometimes that horrible fatigue can mask serious health problems. One year after I finished all treatment, I was Worse than ever. So tired that all I wanted to do was sleep, sleeping at work, dragging my right foot, and making big mistakes at work. When I told the oncology nurse about it she said that fatigue could last 3-4 years. The boss insisted that I take a medical leave. That was when the oncologist sent me to a Neurologist who had me get an MRI of my Brian. They found a 4cm tumor, a meningioma, and did emergency surgery to remove it. I was instantly much better. So my advice is to ask for tests just in case it is not normal fatigue.

Nancy

Wednesday 2nd of December 2020

Linda, You make a very important point! Thank you so much.

Janet Love

Sunday 15th of December 2019

I noticed that there was a clinical trial looking at the effects of Ritalin on cancer related fatigue. So I am trying this out and it seems to be working! I started with a low dose but it didn’t seem to work so my dr increased to dose and i seem to be having more energy. You might want to visit with your dr about giving it a try.

Julia Barnickle

Thursday 28th of November 2019

Helpful post as always, Nancy. I have to admit I struggle with the advice I'm given for managing fatigue (the "5 Ps" as the Occupational Therapist at the hospital said) - because, basically, I don't want to feel fatigued!!!! (I know - neither does anyone else...) I read somewhere that exercise can help to reduce fatigue - but I'm hopeless at doing sedentary exercises at home. I want to go out for a walk - but often I don't have the energy (doh!) Today I watched an interesting TV programme featuring Darcey Bussell (retired ballerina at the Royal Ballet in the UK) where people were talking about how dancing can help certain mental conditions, such as dementia, Parkinsons, anxiety. Then someone said that people tend to feel like they have more energy after a dance session, even if they felt tired beforehand. It might be something to do with the music, connected with physical movement. So I'm going to give that a try. I'll have to start off with barre work (fortunately I studied ballet for about 4 years when I was 11) because otherwise I might fall over, thanks to brain mets. But who knows - maybe some day I'll be dancing the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker ballet!! :-D

Nancy

Monday 2nd of December 2019

Julia, Exercise is beneficial in so many ways, and even though you might feel like it's the last thing you want to do, in most cases, doing it anyway will help you feel better. Of course, just saying this doesn't make doing it easy! And now that winter's here...it gets even harder. Well, for me anyway. Love your idea of taking up dance. Good for you! Thank you for reading and sharing too.