Fatigue means feeling exhausted all, or most of the time. It is one of the most common, and sometimes one of the most difficult, problems for people with cancer. It is different to normal tiredness as it is not related to how busy or active you have been and does not go away if you sleep longer at night. Almost everyone undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy will experience fatigue but it may also be due to advanced disease or as a result of other symptoms, such as breathlessness, anemia (a low red blood cell count) or pain.
Some people find that their tiredness is mild and doesn’t interfere much with their daily life. Other people find that it really disrupts their life.
Some of the more common effects are:
- difficulty doing everyday tasks
- having no energy
- feeling weak
- difficulty thinking or concentrating
- becoming forgetful
- dizziness or light-headedness
- difficulty sleeping
- a lower sex drive
- feeling irritable, emotional and tearful.
There are different ways of treating fatigue depending on the cause, so let your doctor and nurse know how you are feeling. Sometimes treating other symptoms can help you to become less tired. For example, if you are anaemic a blood transfusion may help. Make sure you are getting adequate intake of food and fluids as dehydration and poor nutrition can make fatigue worse. Complementary therapies such as yoga and massage can be effective too.
There are also steps that you can take to plan your day, to make it easier to cope and save your energy for doing things that are most important to you. This may mean being more willing to accept help from others, or making simple changes to the way you do things around the home. Fatigue is often worse in the afternoon so plan to do things in the morning when your energy levels are at their best.
Research has found that exercise and keeping active can help to raise energy levels. 30 minutes of moderate physical activity such as walking on a daily basis has been shown to improve fatigue. However, don’t feel that you have to exercise, or keep going with your daily schedule if you are too tired. It may help to discuss how you feel with a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist at the hospital. They can suggest simple exercises or ways to help you cope with the tiredness.
Limit naps during the day to 30 minutes or less so as not to interfere with night-time sleep patterns. Avoid simulants such as caffeine and alcohol after lunch. Try to go to bed and rise at the same time each day and ensure the bedroom is conducive to sleep – dark, quiet and comfortable. If unable to get to sleep after 20 minutes get out of bed.