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Cancer Fatigue


Fatigue is one of the most distressing symptoms of cancer, particularly for people undergoing active treatment and for people immediately after completing treatment. In one study, nearly half of patients are afflicted with fatigue on most days.

In addition to a general feeling of being tired that is not relieved by sleep, symptoms can include feeing worn out, having difficulty climbing stairs or performing simple daily tasks, difficulty concentrating, and decreased sexual desire.

Cancer itself can cause fatigue. By definition, cancer involves uncontrolled growth in the patient's system. It speeds up metabolism and eats up nutrients. The more energy used by cancer, the less energy available for the rest of your body's functions and daily activities.

Surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation can also contribute to fatigue.

  • Surgery
    • It is common to experience fatigue after an operation, either from the operation or side effects or both. 
    • Over time, as healing progresses, the fatigue will get less and less. 
    • It frequently happens that people do not get back to their normal energy level after surgery, before the fatigue returns due to chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
  • Chemotherapy
    • Patients report that chemotherapy is a big contributor to fatigue.
      • The body has to work hard to eliminate the toxins and dead cells, taking away energy from other uses.
      • Chemotherapy can also cause anemia. Anemeia is when the number of red blood cells in your body is reduced. Reb blood cells are the cells that carry energy providing oxygen through the body.
      • Chemotherapy can affect your eating and sleep habits which in turn cause fatigue.
    • While fatigue is individual, after day two or three, the fatigue usually peaks and starts reducing in intensity until you feel like your "old self." Fatigue starts again with the next chemo treatment.
    • You may not come back to base line while you continue to get dosages.
    • Several studies indicate that exercise is one of the best ways to combat treatment-related fatigue.
  • Radiation
    • The effect of radiation on the system is cumulative. It continues to increase over time, which is different from chemotherapy. The side effects of radiation can also cause fatigue.The more burden that's placed on the body, the more demand to use energy.
    • Fatigue generally peaks at about the end of treatment.
    • For some people, fatigue starts to decline immediately after radiation. For others, fatigue can stay at the peak level for a few weeks at end of radiation. If experience provides a guideline, it is that fatigue usually becomes less and less until patients feel like themselves again after about six months. For some people, it is a much shorter period of time. For others, much longer.
    • NOTE: It is generally suggested that patients not plan to go back to work immediately after the end of radiation treatment.

To learn how to manage cancer fatigue, see: How To Manage Fatigue.

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