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Coping with cancer-related fatigue

Cancer-related fatigue is more than just feeling tired: It’s a pervasive, bone-weary feeling of weakness and exhaustion that’s not always relieved by rest or sleep. Such fatigue can be distressing. It keeps sufferers from normal activities and makes it hard for them to follow their cancer treatments as prescribed.

Studies suggest that as many as 90 percent of people undergoing radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy or bone marrow transplant suffer this fatigue. While cancer-related fatigue is normal and common, you can manage it. But first speak with your healthcare provider about the fatigue. It may be related to side effects from your cancer drugs, radiation treatments or another condition.

Treatable causes of fatigue

When properly treated and managed, many cancer-related conditions that cause fatigue can greatly improve how you feel, including:

  • anemia
  • pain
  • emotional distress, depression, anxiety
  • sleep problems
  • poor or no appetite
  • decreased activity
  • low thyroid function
  • infection
  • heart, lung, kidney and nervous system diseases

For example, your provider may treat anemia with iron and folic acid supplements, a blood transfusion or drugs like epoetin or darbepoetin, which help bone marrow make red blood cells.

What you can do

Even when all the treatable causes are controlled, you may still feel tired. That’s when you need to employ self-care strategies to protect your energy and fight fatigue. The following tips may help:

  • Put your priorities in order. Plan your day around regular rest periods and reserve your energy for the activities most important to you.
  • Ask for and accept help. Let family and friends know what you need, such as help with childcare, grocery shopping, meal preparation, errands or household chores.
  • Reduce stress. Learn and practice stress-reduction techniques like breathing exercises, guided imagery, meditation or prayer. Talking with friends, reading, listening to music, painting and pursuing other creative endeavors reduce stress, too.
  • Walk it out. Light to moderate physical activity, especially the type that gets you outdoors for some fresh air, such as walking, can help relieve fatigue, boost your mood, improve your appetite and increase your energy. Your healthcare provider or a physical therapist can help you plan an appropriate exercise program.
  • Keep a journal. Putting your thoughts and feelings into words can be a rewarding way to reduce stress and fatigue.
  • Eat well. Eat a balanced diet that includes protein foods such as meat, milk, eggs and beans. Drink about two liters, or eight to 10 glasses, of water daily.
  • Find support. Consider joining a support group. Sharing your experiences can help lift your burden, and you may learn helpful ways to cope with your fatigue from others facing it, too.