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Research into cancer fatigue

Many people with cancer say fatigue is one of the symptoms that impacts them most. Researchers are investigating what causes fatigue and how to treat it.

What we know about fatigue

Fatigue affects between 7 and 8 out of every 10 people (70 to 80%) with cancer. There has been a lot of research interest in cancer fatigue.

Let your doctor or nurses know if you have fatigue. There are things that can help control it. 

Research into how cancers cause fatigue

In many cancers, levels of chemicals that cells use to communicate are increased. These are called cytokines.

Researchers are investigating the link between cytokines and fatigue. Higher than normal levels of cytokines could cause fatigue by affecting hormones and chemicals that nerves use to communicate. 

All body chemicals are finely balanced and any upset in one area can easily affect another. This theory has been suggested to explain chronic fatigue syndrome (ME) and could also apply to cancer.

Research into reducing fatigue

Researchers are looking into a number of different treatments that may help to reduce fatigue.

At the moment research shows that exercise seems to work the best to reduce fatigue.

Exercise

Exercise can increase your energy levels and help you to feel better about yourself and your condition. You can see progress in a short space of time.

Generally speaking the more exercise you do, the more you are able to do. And the better it works at reducing fatigue. It depends on your individual situation as what you will be able to do. You should speak to your doctor or physiotherapist before starting exercise.

More research is needed to find out how much people need to do and how often they should exercise. 

Anaemia

The best treatment for fatigue when you have anemia is to increases your haemoglobin and red blood cell count. Blood transfusions are commonly used to treat anaemia.

A drug called erythropoietin (EPO) can also be used for some people. It boosts the production of red blood cells by the bone marrow. But EPO may also increase the chance of some types of cancer coming back.

Further research is being carried out to see when EPO can be safely used.

Drugs

Researchers are looking into whether some drugs can help relieve tiredness during treatment. 

A randomised trial looked at a drug called modafinil to treat fatigue in people with advanced lung cancer. Reserchers concluded that modafinl didn't help the fatigue of this group of people.

Acupuncture

Early studies suggest that acupuncture could help to reduce fatigue by stimulating energy points in the body.

A large randomised trial looked at acupuncture to help women with severe tiredness following chemotherapy for breast cancer. The trial team concluded that acupuncture could help their fatigue. 

Last reviewed: 
05 May 2016
  • Reduction of cancer-related fatigue with dexamethasone: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial in patients with advanced cancer

    S Yennurajalingam and others

    Journal of Clinical Oncology (2013)

  • Acupuncture for cancer-related fatigue in patients with breast cancer: a pragmatic randomized controlled trial

    A Molassiotis and others

    Journal of Clinical Oncology (2012)

  • Fatigue in patients with advanced cancer

    M Hawthorn

    International Juornal of Palliative Nursing (2010)

  • Cancer-related fatigue: a review of nursing interventions

    M Kirshbaum

    British Journal of Community Nursing (2010)

  • Putting evidence into practice: evidence-based interventions for fatigue during and following cancer and its treatment

    S A Mitchell and others

    Clinical Jurnal of Oncology Nursing (2007)

Information and help

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