3 Myths About Fatigue After Cancer



Cancer related fatigue is defined as a distressing, persistent sense of physical, emotional, and/or mental exhaustion related to cancer or cancer treatment that is out of porportion to recent activity and that significantly interferes with usual functioning.

The causes of cancer related fatigue are varied as discussed in the post entitled 5 Causes of Hard-to-Beat Post Cancer Fatigue.  While some causes of cancer related fatigue are medically reversible, others are far more stubborn including physical deconditioning, poor appetite, mental stress, and chemo brain.

In my review of well-intended cancer information sites and online cancer patient forums, I've noticed a few myths circulating about cancer fatigue.  Let's address them, one by one.

Myth 1: Rest helps cancer related fatigue.

Actually, the truth is, rest does not help cancer related fatigue.  In fact, extra rest and sleep can actually make cancer related fatigue worse. 

Normal, functional fatigue is caused by an over taxed body, sleep deprivation, etc.  These are states that are reversed by sleep.  The stubborn causes of cancer related fatigue might be damage to cells by chemo, immune therapy, or radiation, inflammation, and/or harmful cellular waste products that have built up in the body.  Rest does not help heal this physiologic state.  Extra rest can exacerbate muscle shrinkage due to inactivity and make you even more tired!

If you have cancer related fatigue, you'll obviously need to rest, but you shouldn't sleep all day and expect to wake up feeling better.  This would do your body a disservice.  Cancer survivors should keep moving to preserve muscle and keep your body in a functional state.  Sleep 7-8 hours per night.  If you need to nap during the day, keep it to a short power nap so your normal sleep cycle is not disturbed. 

Myth 2: Cancer related fatigue will get better on its own, with time.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that cancer related fatigue is going to improve as you get further out from your cancer treatment.  Some cancer patients regain their energy but others simply do not.  There is no way to tell which group you will fall into. 

Long term fatigue after cancer is likely due to permanent cellular changes caused by treatment.  I'm sure you agree, stubborn fatigue is very, very frustrating for cancer survivors.  Fatigue is the number one cause of poor quality of life after treatment.  You might find yourself wondering, "Was treatment even worth it?"

I must say - Yes, it was worth it!  You had no choice but to kick cancer with all you've got.  But now it's time for realistic expectations of life after cancer treatment.  Get educated about fatigue and make family and friends aware of the possibility of lasting fatigue as well.  Once expectations are known, fatigue can be better managed.  You don't have to settle for fatigue!  Now that you know what you're dealing with, you can face it head on instead of simply waiting for it to go away.

Myth 3: There's nothing you can do to fix fatigue after cancer.

Well, I'm happy to say, this just isn't true!  There is something to do about it!

Cancer treatment teams are focused on giving treatment to cure cancer.  Frankly, it's the most reasonable use of scarce health care resources.  Taking care of people on very potent medicines, after complex surgeries, during toxic radiation treatments - it's an all-consuming business.  After patients are "done" with treatment, cancer care teams release patients so they can focus efforts on the people who need them most - the sickest patients with active malignancy. 

Some comprehensive cancer centers have high quality survivorship clinics that help cancer survivors with long term side effects of treatment, both physical and emotional.  They ideally have specialists in mental health, sexual health, ostomy and wound care, physical therapy, nutrition, lymphedema therapy, massage, chaplaincy, acupuncture; all the health care goodies one wishes for to optimize health after cancer.

But let's face it - this type of comprehensive survivorship program is not available to the majority of cancer survivors.  And whether insurance covers these services is unlikely and another, very lengthy discussion altogether.  So cancer care teams do the best they can, providing basic disease surveillance after cancer with no real care plans for the long term effects of treatment.

So where does that leave you and your fatigue? 

Right here, I suppose.

Evidence shows that fatigue and related effects like brain fog and depression can be addressed with nutrition and weight management, exercise, and mindfulness programs.  You can find boundless vitality in three simple steps. Sign up for Brio’s FREE Online Workshop for Cancer Survivors. Seats are filling up fast! 

Or, if you’d prefer, get started right now and download Brio's FREE Morning Checklist - a 7 point solution for cancer survivor fatigue. It’s easy, free, and the best way to find more energy in your day so you can start getting your life back after cancer - today. 

Take care, Survivor!