Fatigue After Cancer

Feeling tired after cancer

The side effects of cancer treatment vary based on the treatments used and how each person responds to them. For example, some people experience hair loss, while others do not; some people experience nausea and vomiting, while others do not, etc. There is one side effect, however, that many cancer patients and cancer survivors experience: fatigue. It is the most common side effect of cancer treatment both during and after cancer treatment.

What is Fatigue?

When healthy people say they feel fatigued, they’re usually referring to feeling tired because they haven’t slept enough. Relief is typically found by taking a nap or getting a full night of restful sleep.

When cancer patients and survivors describe feeling fatigued, they also usually mean they feel tired. However, it goes beyond tired. Cancer-related fatigue usually includes feeling slow, weak, exhausted, and simply feeling a lack of physical and mental energy. Unlike fatigue that healthy individuals experience, fatigue that cancer patients and survivors experience usually doesn’t disappear after sleep or rest. Some cancer survivors experience cancer-related fatigue at some level for months or even years after their cancer treatment ends.

Should You be Concerned About Feeling Fatigued?

When you’ve survived cancer you have been through a lot, both physically and emotionally. Compared to the other cancer-related side-effect you have endured, you may consider fatigue to be a nuisance but not anything you need to really worry about.

Actually, fatigue that remains untreated can have a huge impact on your quality of life. After completing your cancer treatment, you may be anxious to get back to your pre-cancer activities. When you feel fatigued, you’re not able to do the things you want to do. Fatigue may cause you to:

  • Miss work
  • Skip social events
  • Avoid exercise
  • Avoid friends
  • Put off doing necessary tasks like cleaning your house, buying groceries, etc.
  • Spend more time in bed
  • Experience mood changes
  • Feel depressed and/or hopeless

In other words, fatigue can prevent you from enjoying the fulfilling, post-cancer lifestyle you desire and deserve.

Treatment Options for Cancer-related Fatigue

Because one of the main underlying causes of post-cancer fatigue is anemia (when the blood circulating through the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells), you should talk to your doctor and ask them if you should be tested with a simple blood test for anemia. If you're diagnosed with anemia, your doctor may recommend ways to treat your anemia, along with the fatigue. Depending on the patient, treating anemia may involve:  

  • Making dietary changes such as eating more iron-rich foods like leafy greens such as spinach, red meats, fish, and poultry
  • Getting a blood transfusion to increase the number of red blood cells in the body
  • Taking a prescription medication that may increase the body’s production of red blood cells.

In addition to treating fatigue-causing anemia, there are other ways to reduce fatigue, including:    

  • Modifying and reducing pain medications
  • Taking medication or participating in counseling to alleviate depression
  • Working with your doctor or physical therapist to come up with a light exercise regimen you can tolerate despite your low energy
  • Getting into a regular sleep routine which includes:
    • going to bed a specific time
    • avoiding electronic stimulation for an hour before going to sleep
    • limiting daytime naps

Fatigue on its own is not a life-threatening effect of cancer treatment. However, it can negatively affect your daily quality of life. If you’re experiencing post-cancer fatigue, make sure to speak to your doctor; help is available!