Now that treatment is over, you may think you should be full of energy, but this often isn’t the case. Feeling very tired and lacking energy for daily activities (fatigue) is a common side effect of cancer and its treatment. You may have muscle aches and pains, get worn out quickly, have trouble concentrating or find it difficult to do daily activities.
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Cancer-related fatigue is different from tiredness, as it doesn’t always go away with rest or sleep.
Many people say that fatigue has a big impact on their quality of life in the first year after treatment. You may worry fatigue is a sign that the cancer has come back or that it never really went away. This is usually not true.
Most people find that their energy returns 6–12 months after finishing treatment. However, some people lack energy for years after treatment and their energy levels may never fully recover.
Causes of fatigue
Many cancer survivors don’t tell their doctor about fatigue because they think that nothing can be done about it. However, your treatment team or GP may be able to help.
For example, your fatigue may be caused by a low red blood cell count (anaemia), an underactive thyroid, loss of muscle strength and fitness, depression or the side effects of medicines, which your doctor may be able to manage. You may need a referral to a specialist or a fatigue clinic (if available).
How to manage fatigue
- Be realistic about what you can do. Your body is still recovering and it will take time for your energy levels to return.
- Exercise regularly to help boost your energy levels, restore muscle mass and reduce fatigue. Consider seeing an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist so they can develop a tailored exercise program for you.
- Break tasks up into smaller, more manageable pieces. Focus on doing a little bit each day rather than a lot all at once.
- Plan your day. Set small manageable goals and take regular breaks. Leave plenty of time to get to appointments.
- Adapt your activities. Sit down to talk on the phone or do light chores. Do your shopping online. Talk to an occupational therapist for more tips on reducing fatigue in specific activities.
- If you have children or grandchildren, sit down to play. Try activities like reading, board games, colouring, puzzles and drawing.
- Ask for, and accept, offers of help. Family and friends can help with shopping, school pick-ups or mowing the lawn.
- Say no to things you don’t feel like doing. If you have trouble saying no, ask someone to do it for you.
- Eat nutritious foods and limit alcohol. Aim to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and drink plenty of water.
- Take regular short breaks throughout the day. Rest when you need to.
For more on this, see Fatigue.
I do become tired and I have to be careful, but if I pace myself, I can achieve what I want to achieve.Sue
Podcast: Managing Cancer Fatigue
Prof Michael Jefford, Medical Oncologist and Director, Australian Cancer Survivorship Centre, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Lucy Bailey, Nurse Counsellor, Cancer Council Queensland; Philip Bullas, Consumer; Dr Kate Gunn, Clinical Psychologist and Senior Research Fellow, Department of Rural Health, University of South Australia, SA; Rosemerry Hodgkin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Prof David Joske, Clinical Haematologist, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and Clinical Professor of Medicine, The University of Western Australia, WA; Kim Kerin-Ayres, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Cancer Survivorship, Concord Hospital, NSW; Sally Littlewood, Physiotherapist, Seymour Health, VIC; Georgina Lohse, Social Worker, GV Health,VIC; Melanie Moore, Exercise Physiologist and Clinical Supervisor, University of Canberra Cancer Wellness Clinic, ACT; June Savva, Senior Clinician Dietitian, Nutrition and Dietetics, Monash Cancer Centre, Monash Health, VIC; Dr Elysia Thornton-Benko, Specialist General Practitioner and Research Fellow, University of New South Wales, NSW; Prof Janette Vardy, Medical Oncologist, Concord Cancer Centre and Professor of Cancer Medicine, The University of Sydney, NSW; Lyndell Wills, Consumer.
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