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Cancer fatigue: Why it occurs and how to cope
What to tell your doctor
If you're fatigued, your doctor may examine you and ask you questions to assess the severity and nature of your symptoms. This gives your doctor clues about what's causing your cancer fatigue and how to treat it.
Your doctor might ask questions such as these:
- When did you begin experiencing fatigue?
- Has it progressed since your diagnosis?
- How severe is it?
- How long does it last?
- What eases it?
- What makes it worse?
- How does it affect your daily life?
- Do you experience shortness of breath or chest discomfort?
- How well are you sleeping?
- How and what are you eating?
- How are you feeling emotionally?
In addition to these questions, your doctor will likely conduct a physical exam and further evaluate your medical history, the type or types of treatment you are receiving or have received, and any medications you're taking. He or she may recommend some tests, such as blood tests or X-rays, specific to your condition.
Coping strategies: Medical treatments and self-care
Because cancer-related fatigue may be caused by many factors, your doctor may suggest more than one method to reduce and cope with your symptoms. These may include self-care methods and, in certain cases, medications or medical procedures.
Medications may be available to treat the underlying cause of your fatigue. For instance, if your fatigue is the result of anemia, blood transfusions may help. Medications that stimulate your bone marrow to produce more red blood cells might be another option, though, as with any medicine, these medications must be used with appropriate cautions.
If you're depressed, your doctor might suggest medications that can help reduce fatigue, increase appetite and improve your sense of well-being.
Coping with fatigue might require things you can do on your own. You might try to:
- Take it easy. Set aside time in your day to rest. Take short naps — no longer than an hour — throughout the day rather than resting for one long period.
- Conserve your energy. Save your energy for your most important activities. Keep track of the times when you feel your best, and plan to do your important activities during those times. Ask for help when needed.
- Maintain your energy. Drinking lots of fluids and eating well can help keep your energy reserves up. Limit or avoid caffeine and alcohol. If nausea and vomiting make it hard to eat, talk to your doctor about these side effects.
- Get moving. When you feel up to it, light exercise throughout the week may help you preserve your energy level. But keep in mind that once you start feeling fatigued, it may be too late to start an exercise program because it's hard to find the energy to get going. Instead, exercise regularly as you start treatment. You'll get in the routine of exercising, and it may even help you prevent fatigue during treatment.
Speak up about your fatigue
Don't assume the fatigue you're experiencing is just part of the cancer experience. If it's frustrating you or affecting your ability to go about your day, it's time to talk with your doctor.
Though fatigue is a common symptom when you have cancer, there are steps you can take to reduce or cope with your condition. If you're feeling fatigued, talk with your doctor about what factors might be causing your fatigue and what you can do to improve them.Previous page
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- Cancer-related fatigue. Fort Washington, Pa.: National Comprehensive Cancer Network. http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/f_guidelines.asp. Accessed May 10, 2011.
- Fatigue (PDQ). National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/fatigue/Patient/AllPages. Accessed May 10, 2011.