By Alex De Alvarado and Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D.
If you're a patient with cancer, most likely you've experienced fatigue -- and you're not alone. Fatigue is one of the most common cancer-related symptoms described by cancer survivors.
The National Comprehensive Cancer Network defines cancer-related fatigue as "an unusual, persistent, subjective sense of tiredness related to cancer or cancer treatment that interferes with usual functioning." For people with cancer, chronic fatigue can be distressing and can dramatically interfere with quality of life.
Understanding the causes of fatigue and finding the right approach for managing it could help to improve your quality of life and daily functioning.
It may be difficult to find one cause of fatigue. Actually, there may be multiple contributing factors including, but not limited to:
- Chemotherapy or radiation treatments
- Low red blood counts
- Sleep disorders
- Psychological symptoms such as depression, anxiety or emotional distress
- Pre-existing medical conditions such as uncontrolled diabetes, thyroid problems, heart disease or rheumatoid arthritis
Conserve energy: Organize your daily activities to be more efficient by combining tasks or delegating them when possible. Make sure to pace yourself and develop a routine that includes alternating activities with periods of rest. Also, use assist devices such as walkers, carts and backpacks to reduce the energy you expend.
Restructure your environment: Make spaces such as your workplace or kitchen more user-friendly and prioritize your daily activities instead of trying to do it all.
Improve sleep habits: Stick to a routine sleep cycle and stay on schedule. Limit naps and stay out of bed when not falling asleep. Set aside 1-2 hours of quiet time before sleeping. In addition, avoiding caffeine can help you get a better night's sleep.
Integrative therapies for fatigue
Integrative medicine is playing a larger role in cancer centers across the country and research is exploring how integrative therapies may improve cancer-related symptoms, including fatigue. Adding a physical activity routine such as aerobic walking, swimming and/or resistance training has proven helpful in managing fatigue. There's also growing evidence supporting mind-body practices such as yoga, meditation and tai chi as useful therapies for managing fatigue. Massage therapy may also be a useful way to relax, sleep better and improve fatigue.
There's limited research on the benefits of acupuncture for managing fatigue. However, if fatigue is due to uncontrolled symptoms such as nausea or pain, acupuncture may provide some relief. In addition, professionally evaluating your nutrition to ensure the right nutritional intake of essential vitamins and minerals with your diet can be critical to improving your health and may affect your symptoms.
It's important to communicate with your physician about evaluating the cause of your fatigue symptoms and treatment options. If it's convenient for you to visit MD Anderson , you may want to ask your doctor for a referral to our Fatigue Clinic. You can contact the Fatigue Clinic at 713-563-7100.
To participate in group programs that could help with fatigue, like yoga or NIA, please call the Integrative Medicine Center at 713-794-4700 for more information.
If you are interested in evaluating integrative therapy options, ask your primary oncologist to submit an online consultation request under Integrative Medicine.