Tiredness

Tiredness (fatigue) is probably the most common side effect of breast cancer treatment. It's a feeling of having no energy so it's difficult to do simple, everyday things. You may find that rest doesn't make it better.

Fatigue can affect the way you think and feel. Even things you usually enjoy doing, like reading or watching TV, can be difficult. It can affect your relationships and make you impatient with people around you. You may avoid socialising because it's too much effort.

It is not unusual for fatigue to last for months after treatment is over. In some people, fatigue may last for a year or two after their treatment has ended. If you are taking hormonal therapies, which are given for several years, you may find that tiredness is an ongoing problem for them.

There are ways of coping with fatigue and some causes of fatigue can be treated.

What is tiredness?

Tiredness (fatigue) is probably the most common side effect of breast cancer treatment. It’s fairly common for fatigue to last for months after treatment is over. For some people, it may last for a year or two. Some women taking hormonal therapies, which are given for several years, find the tiredness continues while they are taking the treatment.

If you have fatigue you may:

  • feel that you have got no energy and could spend whole days in bed
  • feel as if everyday activities like showering or cooking can seem impossible and have problems doing even small chores
  • have difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly, making decisions and remembering things
  • feel breathless or light-headed after very little effort
  • have sleep problems
  • lose interest in sex
  • feel more emotional than usual.

Fatigue can affect the way you think and feel. Even things you usually enjoy, such as reading or watching TV, can be difficult.

You may find fatigue affects your relationships and makes you impatient with people around you. Some people end up avoiding socialising because it’s too much effort.


Possible causes of tiredness

Recovering from cancer treatments can take time and fatigue is often a part of this. Sometimes fatigue is linked to problems such as:

It’s important to find out if there is a particular cause of your fatigue so it can be treated.

The most important thing is to tell your doctor or nurse how you are feeling. Don’t play it down. Tell them how your fatigue is at its worst.

Your doctor can take blood samples to find out if you have anaemia (low number of red blood cells), or to find out if your thyroid gland is underactive. Both these conditions can be treated with medicines.

Fatigue is a common symptom of depression. It’s not unusual to feel depressed, anxious or stressed after treatment for cancer. If you think you’re depressed, talk to your doctor or nurse.

You and your doctor will be able to work out if what you’re feeling is depression or fatigue. Your doctor can refer you to a counsellor and may prescribe antidepressants.

Sleep or pain problems may be causing your fatigue or making it worse. Improving these will help you feel better.

Coping with pain is tiring and affects the quality of your sleep. Always let your doctor or nurse know if you have pain that isn’t controlled.


What you can do to help yourself

Taking care of yourself is important and can help you to feel better.

  • Keep to a routine. Going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time can help. Try not to stay in bed in the morning after you’ve woken up.
  • Eat well and keep to as healthy a diet as possible. This can help you feel better and may help you have more energy.
  • Allow people you trust, such as family, friends, neighbours and carers to help you. Generally, people are glad to help and particularly if you can tell them what you need.
  • Make a list of tasks you’d like help with. This could include practical help such as taking out the rubbish, or things like paying bills or setting up direct debits to pay bills. If you have internet access you can do shopping online and have it delivered to your home.
  • Regular exercise can help to reduce fatigue and build up energy levels. A good way to begin is to start with short walks and gradually build up. Exercise also helps you to sleep better and can improve anxiety and depression.
  • Complementary therapies may help to reduce stress and anxiety, and may improve fatigue. Relaxation, counselling and psychological support are available at many cancer treatment centres.
  • Problems with concentration and memory are common with fatigue. This can be frustrating to deal with. But there are ways of coping with concentration and memory problems.

It can be difficult to cope with children when you’re feeling exhausted. You may sometimes feel that you’re letting your family down. Explain to your children that you can’t do as much with them as before. Involve them in some household chores, if they’re old enough. Accept offers from people you trust, to help look after your children at times and take them to and from school or childcare.

You might find that you can’t carry on working or that you have to reduce your hours. There may be things that your employer can do to help. This may be changing your hours or finding you lighter work (if your job is physical).