Fatigue and Cancer

James Metz, MD
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: November 1, 2001

Fatigue is an overwhelming daily lack of energy, which can have an impact on every aspect of a person's life. It causes the affected individual to feel weak all over and lose interest in those people or activities that they usually enjoy. It is not related to exertion and is not relieved with a good night's sleep. Fatigue may be caused by a number of factors including the diagnosis of cancer, treatments, stress, and other medical conditions.

There are medical causes of fatigue that may be treated effectively. Anemia, which is a low red blood cell count, causes a decreases in the amount of oxygen that is delivered to the bodies tissues. There are many causes of anemia, all of which are treated differently. Iron deficiency anemia can be treated with iron supplementation. Slowed production of red blood cells, which can be caused by chemotherapy or chronic illness, can be treated with medications that stimulate the production of red blood cells such as Procrit or Epogen. If the red blood cell counts are dangerously low, the patient may require a transfusion.

Hypothyroidism can also cause fatigue. This is easily treated with thyroid hormone replacement pills taken once a day. Depression can cause fatigue that can be managed with counseling and medications. Infections, which may also cause fatigue, may be treated with appropriate antibiotics.

A physician should evaluate the patient for any medical causes of fatigue. Fatigue is a common occurrence in the cancer patient. The various cancer treatments and emotional stresses are heavy burdens on the body. The body is waging a war against cancer and fatigue is a side effect.

Fortunately there are some simple things the patient can do to take charge of their life and minimize the effects of fatigue. Here are some recommendations:
  • Let your physicians and nurses know that you feel fatigued. Don't hide it. There may be a medical cause that can be easily treated.
  • Don't fight fatigue. Rest when you need it. Try to take small naps during the day.
  • Try to keep to a regular daily routine that is reasonable.
  • Start an exercise program. Exercise can significantly help to relieve fatigue. Start slow at first and work up to a program you can live with.
  • Drink lots of water during the day.
  • Eat a well balanced diet with frequent, small meals.
  • Avoid caffeine in the evening
  • Get a handle on the stresses in your life. Take time to put them in perspective.
  • Delegate chores. Family and friends are almost always happy to help out in any way they can.

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