Fatigue is the most common side effect of cancer treatment. It can happen during or after treatment.

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What is fatigue?

Fatigue is feeling exhausted and lacking energy for day-to-day activities. For people with cancer, fatigue is different from tiredness as it doesn’t always go away with rest or sleep.

It can be very distressing for the person experiencing it and for those around them. Some people say they find the tiredness harder to manage than the pain or nausea. 

What causes fatigue?

Tiredness can be caused by a range of things such as:

  • the cancer itself
  • cancer treatment such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgery
  • poor nutrition causing loss of weight and muscle tone
  • anxiety
  • lack of sleep
  • drugs such as pain medicines, antidepressants and sedatives
  • anaemia (low levels of red blood cells)
  • infection.

What are the symptoms of fatigue?

  • a lack of energy – you may want to stay in bed all day
  • difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • feeling anxious or depressed, particularly if fatigue persists
  • muscle pain – you may find it hard to walk or climb stairs
  • feeling breathless after light activity, such as having a shower or making the bed
  • difficulty concentrating, even watching TV or talking to someone
  • finding it hard to think clearly or make decisions easily
  • little or no interest in sex (low libido).

Ways to manage fatigue

The tips below may help you. These suggestions might not work for everyone, but you may find that small changes make you feel better. Talk to your health professionals for more suggestions.

  • Set small, manageable goals. Focus on doing a little bit each day rather than a lot in one go.
  • Ask for help. Get a friend to help with school pick-ups, shopping or running errands.
  • Talk about the fatigue with your friends, relatives and carers to help them understand how you feel.
  • Plan your day so you can do the activities that are most important to you at the time of day when you have the most energy.
  • Take rest breaks between activities.
  • Do things slowly so that you don’t use too much energy as you go. Leave plenty of time to get to appointments.
  • Try activities to help you relax, reduce stress and take your mind off how tired you feel. For example, you might walk on the beach, sit in a peaceful setting, do some gardening, have a long bath or listen to some music.
  • Say no to things that you don’t feel like doing. It’s okay not to please others all the time.
  • Have realistic expectations. As soon as treatment finishes, don’t expect to be able to instantly do all the things you used to do before the cancer. Your body is still recovering and it will take time for your energy levels to return.
  • Do some regular light exercise, which can boost energy levels and make you feel less tired. A short walk may help to restore your energy without exhausting you. Talk to your health care team about suitable activities.
  • Smoking reduces your energy. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about quitting or visit Quitline.
  • Save your energy. Sit down to talk on the phone or do chores, such as cutting up vegetables, ironing or loading the washing machine. Sit down to put wet clothes on hangers and use a trolley to transport them to the clothesline. Leave chairs around the house so that you can sit when you feel tired.
  • If you have children, play with them sitting or lying down. Board games, puzzles and drawing are good activities.
  • Eat nutritious meals and snacks throughout the day.
  • Go to the shops during quieter times or do your shopping online.
  • Get in touch with a Cancer Connect volunteer who has had the same type of cancer and can share their story.
  • Consider joining a support group.

When will it get better?

Most people get their energy back 6-12 months after treatment. However, some people lack energy for years after treatment and their energy levels may never fully recover.

This information was last reviewed in December 2016
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Cancer information

Learn more about chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells

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How cancer starts and spreads