Cancer-related fatigue: Tips for cancer patients and survivors

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fatigue and cancer

By Pamela Schlembach, M.D.

If you ask a patient who has just completed cancer treatment how he or she is feeling, very often the answer you'll get is, "Great!" Most patients are relieved to be through with their treatment and are ready to get on with their lives.

Dig a little deeper, though, and patients usually will confess that they're feeling a little tired.

Unfortunately, fatigue is a common side effect of both chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Most patients will be tired at some point in their treatment and often for a few months after they're finished.

However, there are some things you can do to help minimize the effects of fatigue and give you more energy so you can get back to feeling like your old self as soon as possible. Here are some tips to help get your energy back.

Maintain a healthy diet
Patients might get weary of hearing about the need to make dietary changes, but it's the simple truth. Foods that are good for you will help you feel better.

Spinach, for example, is an excellent source of iron to help with fatigue. And, berries are filled with vitamin C, which may help protect your body from immune system deficiencies. In fact, any kind of fruits and vegetables you choose make great, healthy snacks and should be part of every meal.

If you're looking for healthier meals, MD Anderson Children's Hospital online cookbook is full of simple, healthy recipes designed especially for families on the go. It's an excellent resource for full meals, appetizers, snacks and desserts. 

Try to exercise daily
When you're very tired, physical activity is often the last thing you want to do. However, curling up on the couch and watching television isn't going to increase your energy level.

Instead, try to get light exercise every day. A 20-minute walk is a perfect start, but you should aim to increase your physical activity over time. The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer patients and survivors get 150 minutes of aerobic exercise at moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise each week.  

Frequently, cancer patients get frustrated when they can't complete a task due to overwhelming fatigue, but don't be too hard on yourself. Get your exercise when you're feeling most rested.

Practice good sleep habits
Good sleep and rest habits can also make a huge difference in your fight against cancer-related fatigue.

One way to make sure you sleep more soundly at night is to limit naps to less than 30 minutes. This way, your body won't get the message that it's okay to stay up later at night.

Also, avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can keep you awake at night.

It's also best to stick to a regular sleep schedule, including on weekends. Turn off your television an hour before bedtime and spend that time quietly doing things you enjoy, like reading a good book or listening to music.

Sometimes, anxiety and worry may keep you staring at the clock. Turn the clock around so you won't get frustrated by the late hour if you're still awake when you shouldn't be. And take advantage of the kind offers you get from family and friends to make you a meal or mow your lawn. This can help relieve your mind of some of the worries that may be keeping you up at night.

If you haven't fallen asleep after 15 minutes, go to another room, avoid mental stimulation and return to bed when you feel sleepy.

Talk to your doctor if fatigue persists
If these strategies don't work for you, be sure to talk to your doctor about your fatigue. He or she may be able to identify certain prescriptions or habits that are causing your fatigue. Your doctor may also prescribe a medication to help reduce your fatigue or refer you to MD Anderson's Fatigue Clinic.

Remember, fatigue is common among cancer patients and caregivers, but it shouldn't become your way of life. By making changes, you should be able to feel less tired and have more energy to do the things you want to do during and after cancer treatment.

Pamela Schlembach, M.D., is a radiation oncologist at MD Anderson in The Woodlands.

Read more posts by Dr. Schlembach

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