Key Steps for Coping with Cancer-Related Fatigue

cancer fatigueFatigue is one of the most common side effects reported by cancer patients, and symptoms of cancer- related fatigue differ significantly from the fatigue patients experienced before cancer diagnosis.

Cancer-related fatigue is not only caused by the disease itself, but cancer treatment as well as the emotional and psychological effects of fighting cancer can also contribute. Described by patients as more pronounced during treatment, cancer-related fatigue can leave patients feeling wiped out by simple and small activities. It can also last years after treatment.

According to the American Cancer Society, characteristics of cancer-related fatigue include:

  • Extreme tiredness that may vary in severity from day to day
  • Weakness, weariness or lethargy even after sleep
  • Feeling worn out after simple tasks like standing up from a chair or getting out of bed
  • Heaviness in arms and legs
  • Trouble with concentration and memory

Kay Halbert, Director of Outpatient Services at Emory Johns Creek Hospital, works with cancer patients undergoing cancer treatment on energy conservation. “Energy conservation is coming up with ways to decrease the amount of energy patients use to complete a task while still achieving similar end results so they continue to function in their day-to-day lives.” One energy-conserving technique is using a rolling cart to move heavy dishes rather than carrying them. Another example is prior to getting up from a chair, scoot to the edge, lean forward and push off with the arms and then straighten the legs.

“It’s important for patients and survivors to understand their bodies aren’t the same after cancer treatment,” Halbert explains. “It’s okay for them to modify how they accomplish daily tasks and learn to let go of some things completely.”

Some specific energy-conserving tips are:

  • Keep items within easy reach to limit how often you have to get up.
  • Avoid reaching for items overhead and/or below your knees; keep needed items and work surfaces at a comfortable height.
  • Decide which tasks are absolutely necessary. Let the rest go.
  • Share your workload with family and friends. Remember to delegate.
  • Complete tasks that require the most energy during times throughout the day when you have the most energy. Journaling can help you keep track of these high-energy vs. low-energy periods of time.
  • Alternate between easy and difficult tasks and rest 10 to 15 minutes every hour.
  • Stop before you feel worn out.

“Think about your energy levels as if it were a gas tank. Be economical about the how much energy you use, and make sure you refuel before you’re completely out of gas,” adds Halbert.

It’s very important to note that not all patients experience the same after affects of cancer, such as fatigue, but knowing about ways to help you cope may limit the severity of these after effects with early intervention and modification.

Related Resources

Prepare for Life after a Diagnosis of Cancer

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