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What is cancer fatigue?

Fatigue means tiredness and lack of energy. For people with cancer, this can be severe and last a long time. Cancer or its treatment can cause fatigue.

Fatigue makes you feel like you can't do things at your normal pace. We all feel this at times, like when we're working too hard, worrying about something or overdoing the socialising.

Not eating properly or taking too little exercise can make it worse.

With this type of fatigue, your body is letting you know that you are overdoing it. The tiredness is usually short term and you feel better after you stop and rest.

Fatigue for people with cancer might not go away even when you rest. It can go on for weeks, months or even years after you finish treatment. This is called chronic fatigue, which means long lasting. Most people get back to their normal energy levels from between 6 months to a year after the end of cancer treatment. But it can take longer.

Fatigue is very common in people with cancer. It can be the most troubling symptom. It affects between 70 and 80 out of every 100 people (70 to 80%). Many people say it's the most disruptive side effect of all. 

In the past, doctors and nurses haven't always appreciated the long term effects of fatigue on people with cancer. But there is now a lot of research into this area. Things are improving and there are ways of relieving fatigue.

How fatigue can affect your daily life

Fatigue can be very frustrating. You and your relatives might underestimate how much it can affect daily life. It can have a mental, physical, emotional and spiritual impact on you.

Doctors sometimes overlook fatigue, leaving you to feel that you've been left to cope alone. Everyday life can be hard work and you might not have the energy to cook, clean, bathe or go shopping. You might not even feel up to a chat.

All this can affect the way you feel about yourself and your relationships with other people. You can feel very down and not want to go out or be with people which can be hard for them to understand.

You might have to stop work or cut down your hours. This can affect how much money you have.

You might feel like fatigue is a constant reminder of your cancer and this can be hard to accept. You might worry that because you feel so tired all the time your cancer could be getting worse. But it is more likely to be a side effect of treatment, or due to the fact that cancer can cause fatigue.

Fatigue is very real and can have a big impact on your life. Let your doctor know if you have symptoms of fatigue. There are ways of managing it and your medical team will try to help you.

Last reviewed: 
04 May 2016
  • Cancer-related fatigue: the scale of the problem
    M Hofman and others
    The Oncologist (2007)

  • Cancer-related fatigue: inevitable, unimportant and untreatable? Results of a multi-centre patient survey. Cancer Fatigue Forum 
    P Stone and others
    Annuals of Oncology (2000)

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