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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 looking into what causes fatigue and how to treat it. Let your doctor or nurse know if you have fatigue. There are things that can help manage it. 

We have included ongoing research to give an example of the type of research happening. Some of the research and trials on this page have now stopped recruiting people. It takes time for the results to be available.

Go to Cancer Research UK’s clinical trials database if you are looking for a trial. You need to talk to your specialist doctor about any trials that you think you might be able to take part in. 

Research into the causes of fatigue

It’s still unclear the exact cause of fatigue. Researchers want to understand the biology of how cancer related fatigue happens. Once they know this, they can look for treatments that might be able to help.

Researchers are looking at the information inside the cells that control how we look and function (genes). They want to check for changes that might be linked to how fatigue develops. They also think that different cancers and their treatments affect how fatigue develops.

There is some evidence to say that fatigue is related to inflammation and the body’s immune response. Researchers think that genes that control inflammation are a possible risk factor for people who have long term fatigue.

Knowing who is likely to have long term fatigue, could then mean that doctors can help lower these effects early on with treatment advice.

In many cancers, cells within the body release higher levels of chemicals. These chemicals are called cytokines. Researchers are looking into 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. 

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. 

Low levels of red blood cells (anaemia)

The best treatment for fatigue caused by anaemia is to increase 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 a drug called methylphenidate (Ritalin) can help relieve moderate to severe tiredness caused by advanced cancer.

Advanced cancer means that cancer has spread from where it has started to another part of the body.

Methylphenidate is a treatment for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It can help improve attention and concentration. 

Massage therapy

Researchers are looking into massage therapy, its safety and how well it works in people with cancer related fatigue.  

Herbal medicines

Some studies have looked at herbal medicines such as ginseng and guarana. The researchers found that these drugs helped people with fatigue. But more research is needed in larger groups of people.

Light therapy

Research shows that light therapy could help improve the symptoms of cancer related fatigue. They already know it works for some people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This is a type of depression that follows the change in season. But researchers don’t yet know the best amount of light, the long term effects or how long the light therapy may work for. More research is needed in this area.  

Last reviewed: 
06 Jan 2020
  • Clinical massage therapy for patients with cancer-related fatigue protocol of a systematic review
    K wang and others
    Medicine, 2018. Volume 97, Issue 49, e13440

  • Genomic Variants Associated With Cancer-Related Fatigue: A Systematic Review
    J Tariman and S Dhorajiwala
    Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, 2016. Volume 20, Issue 5, Pages 537 – 546

  • Efficacy of Ginseng Supplements on Fatigue and Physical Performance: a Meta-analysis
    H V Bach and others
    Journal of Korean Medical Science, 2016. Volume 31, Issue 21, Pages 1879 - 1886Efficac

  • Cancer-Related and Treatment-Related Fatigue
    X S Wang and J F Woodruff
    Gynecologic Oncology, 2015. Volume 136, Issue 3, Pages 446 - 452

  • Bright light therapy improves cancer-related fatigue in cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial
    J A Johnson and others
    Journal of Cancer Survivorship, 2018. Volume 12, Issue 2, Pages 206 - 215

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

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