Cancer-related fatigue

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Cancer, treatments, stress and other factors can cause fatigue. Learn about the symptoms of cancer-related fatigue and how to manage it.

Key points

  • Cancer-related fatigue can be physical, emotional or a combination of both, and may be caused by the disease, treatments, stress or other cancer-related symptoms.
  • Symptoms of cancer related-fatigue include tired eyes or legs; low energy; poor concentration; boredom; and irritability, among other things.
  • You can manage fatigue by learning to save energy when you're feeling fatigued, and keeping a diary to track the times you feel fatigued and what made you feel better or worse.

Fatigue is the feeling of physical or emotional exhaustion. It usually happens when you over-exert or "push" yourself too hard. Fatigue can be triggered by a lot of different things such as stress, medication, working too hard, illness and disease.

What causes fatigue?

Fatigue is a common symptom among cancer patients and there is even a special name for it: "cancer fatigue." Cancer fatigue can be physical, emotional or a combination of both. No one knows exactly why it occurs. It may be caused by the disease process and treatments.

Some cancer treatments may be more likely to cause fatigue, including:

  • chemotherapy
  • radiation therapy
  • bone marrow transplant
  • biologic therapy

There are also lots of other factors that can contribute to cancer-related fatigue such as:

  • anemia (decreased numbers of red blood cells)
  • combination therapy (chemotherapy and radiation together)
  • tumour-induced hypermetabolic state (when the tumour competes with your other cells for your energy)
  • malnutrition (having very low levels of nutrients)
  • hypothyroidism (when the thyroid stops releasing enough hormones to keep your energy levels up)
  • side effects of the medications you take to ease side effects from cancer treatment
  • pain
  • stress
  • depression
  • insomnia

What are the symptoms of cancer-related fatigue?

When you have cancer-related fatigue, your symptoms might include:

  • tired eyes
  • tired legs
  • whole-body tiredness
  • stiff shoulders
  • low energy
  • poor concentration
  • weakness
  • boredom or lack of motivation
  • sleepiness
  • increased irritability
  • nervousness
  • anxiety
  • impatience

How can I manage cancer-related fatigue?

Here are some ways you can try to manage your fatigue.

  • Learn how to save energy when you’re feeling fatigued
  • Keep a diary to track the times you feel fatigued to help figure out what might make your fatigue better or worse. For example:
    • Schedule periods of rest for yourself
    • Pace yourself – go at a moderate pace instead of rushing through activities
    • Identify anything in your surroundings that could cause you additional fatigue (for example harsh lighting)
    • Prioritize the activities that you want to do and manage your time so you can do them according to how you think you might be feeling
    • Make sure you keep a proper diet and exercise. This will be discussed in depth in the lifestyle section

Your health-care team may also have some really great tips that can help reduce fatigue. Ask them for any advice that they may have.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019