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How doctors assess fatigue

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This page tells you about assessing cancer fatigue. There is information on


Why your doctor needs to assess your fatigue

Before your doctor can manage your fatigue they will need to find out more about it. They will ask you about the history of your illness and fatigue. This may seem like too much to deal with if you are feeling tired and weak. You probably just want your doctor to sort it out as quickly as possible. But it is very important that your fatigue is properly assessed. This helps your doctor to make the right decisions about treating you. If you are feeling so tired that you really can't answer questions, your family and friends may be able to help.

Unfortunately there are no medical tests to measure fatigue. But a good way to describe fatigue is on a scale of 1 to 10. Where 1 means you don’t feel tired at all and 10 means the worst tiredness you can imagine.

If you rate your fatigue at less than 3, your doctor or nurse will probably just keep an eye on you and ask each time they see you if it has got any worse. It is likely that nothing serious is wrong. You may just be feeling a bit more tired than usual due to coping with your diagnosis, tests and treatment.

But if you rate fatigue higher than 3, your doctor will want to find out more. They will ask you more questions, including

  • When did it start?
  • How long has it lasted?
  • Has it got worse over time?
  • Does anything make it feel better or worse? For example, exercise, eating or pain.
  • Does it affect your daily living activities such as washing, cooking or walking?
  • Do you have any problems sleeping?
  • Do you have any other major problems in your life such as relationship or financial problems or work worries?
  • Do you have any other symptoms with your fatigue, such as feeling or being sick, breathlessness or pain?
  • Is the fatigue made worse or better when you have treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy?
  • Do you have any other medical conditions?
  • Did you feel fatigued before your cancer was diagnosed?
  • How long since you have had your bowels open?
  • Are you having any problems with passing urine?

Being examined by your doctor

After you have answered these questions your doctor will examine you. They may

  • Examine your abdomen (tummy)
  • Feel for enlarged lymph nodes under your arms, in your groin and around your neck
  • Take your blood pressure and pulse
  • Listen to your chest

Your doctor may suggest a chest X-ray and blood tests to get more information about your health. For example, if your fatigue is due to anaemia, a blood test will show a low haemoglobin (Hb) level, meaning that you are short of red blood cells.

The most important thing is that you let your doctor or nurse know if you feel tired. Don't be afraid to ask them questions. 

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Updated: 4 March 2014