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Cancer Fatigue

How to Say It: CAN-sir Fah-TEEG

Definition

Cancer fatigue is a feeling of extreme weakness and tiredness. It happens during cancer treatment. At times, it can make it hard to do basic tasks. The fatigue can last for weeks or even years. Treatment can help.

Chemotherapy Affects the Whole Body
Chemotherapy

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Causes

Cancer fatigue is caused by cancer and the side effects of treatment. Fatigue can be made worse by:

  • Pain
  • Anemia
  • Poor nutrition and not enough fluids
  • Hormonal changes
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Problems sleeping
  • Stress
  • Side effects of medicines

Risk Factors

Things that raise the risk of cancer fatigue are:

  • Undergoing cancer treatment
  • Worsening of cancer
  • Poor nutrition or breathing problems before treatment
  • Personal or family history of depression
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Being socially isolated or lonely
  • History of childhood stress, such as abuse and/or neglect
  • Dementia

Symptoms

Symptoms of cancer fatigue may be:

  • Extreme tiredness despite enough sleep or rest
  • Lack of energy to do basic daily tasks
  • Problems with memory and focus
  • Heavy feeling in the arms and legs
  • Impatience, irritability
  • Sleeping too much or not enough

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may ask questions and give a questionnaire. This will help make a diagnosis.

Treatment

The goal is to help ease fatigue. It is also to treat conditions that may be causing the fatigue, such as anemia.

Treatment options may be:

  • Medicine to help ease fatigue, such as:
    • Certain stimulants
    • Corticosteroids
  • Lifestyle changes to improve energy levels and functioning, such as:
    • Physical activity
    • Education and counseling—on methods to save energy, ease stress, and improve coping
    • A healthful diet and/or supplements
    • Herbal products
    • Sleep habit changes
  • Blood transfusions—to ease fatigue due to anemia

Prevention

It is not always possible to prevent cancer fatigue. Managing treatment and side effects can help.

RESOURCES:

American Cancer Society
https://www.cancer.org

National Cancer Institute
https://www.cancer.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Cancer Society
https://www.cancer.ca

Provincial Health Services Authority
http://www.bccancer.bc.ca

REFERENCES:

Anemia of chronic disease. Iron Disorders Institute website. Available at: http://irondisorders.org/anemia-of-chronic-disease/. Accessed September 22, 2021.

Cancer pain. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/cancer-pain. Accessed September 22, 2021.

Cancer-related fatigue at the end of life. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/cancer-related-fatigue-at-the-end-of-life. Accessed September 22, 2021.

Fatigue and weakness. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/fatigue.html. Accessed September 22, 2021.

General information about fatigue. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/fatigue/fatigue-pdq. Accessed September 22, 2021.

Mohandas H, Jaganathan SK, et al. Cancer-related fatigue treatment: An overview. J Cancer Res Ther. 2017;13(6):916-929.

Toxicities of chemotherapeutic agents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/drug-review/toxicities-of-chemotherapeutic-agents. Accessed September 22, 2021.

Last reviewed July 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP  Last Updated: 9/22/2021