Cancer-related fatigue

How is cancer-related fatigue different from just being tired?

Most people are tired after work or exercise, but resting or sleeping can usually make them feel better again. Cancer-related fatigue is different, though: It can be an overwhelming, daily lack of energy that is not helped by rest or sleep. Cancer-related fatigue is not only felt in your whole body, but in your mind and emotions, too. It can also last much longer than normal tiredness — anywhere from a month to several months.

What causes cancer-related fatigue?

Not everyone gets cancer-related fatigue; for those who do, it usually comes as a side effect of their chemotherapy, radiation treatments, or a combination of treatments. If you have cancer-related fatigue, it’s not your fault: You are feeling worn-out for a reason. Chemotherapy, for example, might lower your blood counts, leading to anemia; it can make you feel very tired. And radiation therapy — no matter where on the body it’s used — can cause whole-body fatigue that gets worse over time. It may hang on for months, even after your treatment ends.

Cancer-related fatigue can also have other causes, like:

  • Tumor cells that pull nutrients out of healthy cells
  • Your body needing to use more energy as it fights the cancer
  • A poor diet because of nausea, mouth sores, or other effects of treatment, like lack of appetite
  • Medicines that are used to handle the side effects of your cancer treatments
  • Stress and worry about your health, your future, and the needs of your family or co-workers

Take action to fight cancer-related fatigue and reduce your pain

There are several proven ways to help your cancer-related fatigue. Talk them over first with your health care provider:

    • Plan, Pace, and Prioritize. Most of us have a hard time giving up activities or asking for help, but it’s one of the best ways to feel more energized. Plan your day to save extra trips, steps, and energy. Your friends and family are looking for ways to be useful, so think of tasks that you can “outsource” to them, such as grocery shopping, running errands, gardening, or driving the kids around. You will be giving the gift of usefulness to them, while also helping yourself. At the same time, pace yourself: Switch between periods of activity and periods of rest. And finally, prioritize what is most important in your life: Would you rather cook a huge meal, or save your energy to play with your child or grandchild this afternoon? You can’t do it all!


    • Get moving, if only for a few minutes a day. Walking outdoors, swimming, or doing easy resistance exercises have been shown to boost energy and reduce cancer-related fatigue – especially if they’re done every day. Try it with a friend.


    • Draw on your experiences. In the past, what has helped your body and mind to feel better? Music, acupuncture, yoga, massage? These activities can help you even more now, and all of them can reduce fatigue.


    • Get the most out of your sleep. Ask your health care provider for tips on getting a good night’s sleep.


    • Nourish yourself. Ask your health care provider for help in choosing a balanced diet that can boost your energy level and fight fatigue.


  • Don’t ignore your fatigue and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Only you know how you feel, and only you can describe it to your health care provider or nurse. Keep a “fatigue diary” and rate your fatigue in the same way that you’d rate your pain: Use a scale of 1-10, with 1 being a low level of fatigue, and 10 being the most tired that you have ever felt. Untreated pain takes energy to deal with and may make your fatigue worse, so it’s important to work with your health care provider to manage both problems.