Cancer fatigue can be debilitating and affect all aspects of a person's life. But there are ways to cope with and even treat it.

Extreme fatigue—the seemingly bone-crushing exhaustion that makes it difficult to brush your teeth, cook a hamburger, or climb the stairs—is one of the most common complaints of people with cancer. It is caused by cancer itself or cancer treatment (chemotherapy or radiation therapy). Unlike acute fatigue, in which tiredness comes on quickly, lasts a short time, and is relieved by rest, cancer fatigue is a prolonged, debilitating fatigue that is persistent or recurring.

The Statistics

Studies show that fatigue exists in 70% to 100% of people with cancer, particularly in people actively undergoing treatment with chemotherapy or radiation therapy. One study of 687 post-treatment survivors of various forms of cancer, in which patients reported that fatigue was one of the three most negative items affecting quality of life, found that this condition can linger for months or even years after the initial treatment.

A national survey of 379 chemotherapy patients revealed that cancer fatigue had a profound impact on their relationships with family, friends, bosses, and work colleagues. Activities of daily living, work performance, and overall sense of well-being were also seriously compromised. In some cases, financial resources became limited because of an impaired ability to function at work (the survey found that 28% of the respondents were forced to stop working altogether, and 75% of those who were able to work needed to make adjustments in their work schedules or habits).

Cancer fatigue can also take an emotional toll, as the chaos of getting diagnosed, exploring treatment options, and undergoing medical procedures can begin to feel physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. Clearly, cancer-related fatigue exacerbates the already difficult experience of learning to cope with a life-altering illness.

What Causes It

Although the exact physiologic, biochemical, and psychological causes of cancer fatigue are poorly understood, the National Cancer Institute lists a number of contributing factors:

Cancer Therapies

Fatigue commonly occurs when a patient undergoes surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and biologic response modifier therapy, such as Interferon. Treatment with Interferon causes fatigue as part of a group of side effects known as "flu-like" syndrome, which also includes fever, chills, muscle pain, headache, and a general sense of not feeling well. Tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a toxic substance produced by a tumor, may cause a decrease in protein stores in the muscles, thereby causing the body to work harder to carry out normal functions. Physical responses to the treatment itself, such as nausea and vomiting, also appear to contribute to fatigue.

Anemia

Anemia, related to the disease process itself or to therapy, can cause fatigue.

Poor Nutrition

Reduced appetite, reduced food intake, nausea, and vomiting can all occur and contribute to fatigue.

Psychologic and Cognitive Factors

Anxiety, depression, stress, mental fogginess, and decreased attention span can compound the physical causes of fatigue.

Medications

Medications other than chemotherapy drugs, including opioid painkillers, beta-blockers, and neuroleptics, can cause sedation and increase fatigue.

Breathing Impairment

Difficulty breathing, which is particularly present in people with advanced disease and/or lung cancer, also contributes to fatigue.

Other Contributing Factors

  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Systemic inflammatory response
  • Disrupted sleep and circadian rhythms
  • Hormonal changes (premature menopause related to surgery or chemotherapy)

Assessment of Cancer Fatigue

Formed in 1996, The Fatigue Coalition is a multidisciplinary group comprising medical practitioners, researchers, and patient advocates from some of the top cancer hospitals. The coalition has worked diligently to assure that doctors address the issue of cancer fatigue, whether their patients bring it up during regularly scheduled visits or not.

A number of instruments are available to help clinicians assess cancer-related fatigue, including the Symptom Distress Scale, MD Anderson Symptoms Inventory, Piper Fatigue Self-Report Scale, the Schwartz Cancer Fatigue Scale, and Lee's Visual Analogue Scale for Fatigue. More comprehensive assessments such as the Multidimentional Fatigue Inventory or the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy-Fatigue Scale, include a physical examination and psychiatric evaluation to screen for depression and/or anxiety, looks at a number of factors, such as:

  • Fatigue pattern: onset, duration, intensity, and alleviating and aggravating factors
  • Treatment history: treatment-related symptoms or side affects, and current medications
  • Sleep and/or rest patterns
  • Nutrition status
  • Psychosocial profile: financial resources, ability to work, and availability of supportive family, friends, or caretakers

The International Classification of Disease (ICD), 10th revision, lists a number of criteria that can be used to determine the presence of cancer-related fatigue, including a patient's complaints of generalized weakness and limb heaviness, perceived need to struggle to overcome inactivity, sleep problems, and diminished concentration, attention, and memory.

The ICD-10 criteria state that a diagnosis of cancer-related fatigue can be made if: (1) "significant fatigue, diminished energy, or an increased need to rest (disproportionate to any recent change in activity level) are present" and (2) the presence of these symptoms must cause "clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning."

Coping With Cancer Fatigue

The Center for Fatigue in Medical Illness is a joint project of the department of Pain Medicine and Palliative Care and the Cancer Center at Beth Israel Medical Center, Continuum Health Partners, Inc. in New York City. According to them the treatment of cancer fatigue includes identifying and managing the underlying cause and using a variety of interventions that may include medication, patient/family education, exercise, sleep hygiene, stress management, and nutrition.

Treating Anemia

Anemia, a major factor in cancer-related fatigue, can be treated by blood transfusion therapy, as well as by the administration of erythropoietin alfa, a synthetic hormone that stimulates the bone marrow to increase its production of red blood cells.

Optimizing pain control

Untreated, chronic pain may contribute to the feeling of fatigue.

Treating Depression

There is a strong correlation between depression and fatigue. Approximately 5% to 50% of cancer patients suffer from major depressive disorder. Bupropion (Wellbutrin-SR) shows promise in preliminary studies.

Medications

Some oncology clinicians have found that low doses of psychostimulant drugs, such as Dexedrine, Ritalin and Cylert, are useful for cancer patients experiencing decreased energy, apathy, poor concentration, and weakness. Although, there are few published trials proving the effectiveness of these drugs for this purpose. These medications, which appear to decrease fatigue, increase appetite, and promote a sense of well-being, also counteract the sedating effects of painkillers such as morphine. Corticosteroids, such as dexamethasone or prednisone, may also be given, but long-term steroid therapy is usually reserved for patients with advanced disease.

Methylphenidate (Ritalin) is a stimulant that is related to amphetamines. It has a short half-live, and its onset of action is rapid. Efficacy was only shown in open-label studies but not placebo-controlled, double-blind studies. Dexmethylphenidate (Focalin), a chemically related compound, shows promise in preliminary study. Modafinil (Provitil) is structurally different from methylphenidate. It is used for treatment of narcolepsy, and it has been usually well tolerated by cancer patients. Use of Pemoline has been limited due to liver toxicity.

Steroids treatment led to improvement in fatigue, quality of life and pain in cancer patients.

L carnitine, a micronutrient, shows promise in preliminary studies in reducing fatigue and improving the quality of life.

Exercise

Numerous studies have suggested that aerobic exercise, including light-to-moderate intensity walking programs, can be useful in minimizing or improving the symptoms of cancer-related fatigue, especially during the time that patients are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments. Exercise programs must be tailored to the individual according to age, gender, and physical and medical condition, and frequent rest periods are recommended. A daily diary can identify specific activities that increase fatigue, or particular times of the day when fatigue is more pronounced, allowing the patient to utilize energy conservation measures, such as alternating strenuous pursuits with more sedentary ones.

Diet

A healthful diet containing plenty of fruits, vegetables, and iron-rich foods can help maintain energy levels. Adequate fluid intake is important in preventing dehydration and hypotension, which tends to intensify feelings of fatigue.

Stress Management

Other basic self-help skills include the use of stress management techniques (relaxation, deep breathing, meditation), which can be useful in reducing anxiety, enhancing coping skills and increasing energy levels. It's also important to learn to ask for help when you need it and to educate yourself about the nature and treatment of fatigue symptoms.

Other Steps to Consider

  • Counseling for anxiety/depression
  • Acupuncture: There is some preliminary evidence to suggest that acupuncture might be beneficial in treating cancer-related fatigue.

Fighting the cancer battle takes enormous energy, courage, and determination. By demanding skillful and compassionate management of cancer fatigue, you can begin to empower yourself and take back control of your life.