What is fatigue?

Fatigue can be caused by cancer itself or the side effects of treatments. It is when you feel very tired or exhausted most, or all, of the time. Nine out of ten people with cancer (90%) experience fatigue and it affects everyone differently. For some people the effects will be very mild, for others it can be very disruptive. You may get tired very quickly, and not feel better after resting and sleeping. Fatigue can affect all areas of your life. Even reading or watching television can be very tiring. This can be frustrating and overwhelming.

Cancer-related fatigue (CRF) usually gets better after treatment finishes but, for some people, it continues for months or years. Tell your doctors and nurses about your fatigue and how it affects your life. You may find it helpful to keep a fatigue diary. Your doctor or nurse may be able to tell you about ways you can manage the symptoms or treat the causes. One of the best things you can do to manage your fatigue is to stay physically active.

Fatigue and cancer

Fatigue is a very common problem for people with cancer.

As many as nine out of ten people with cancer (90%) may feel fatigued at some time. The causes of cancer-related fatigue (CRF) are not really understood. It may be due to the cancer itself or the symptoms caused by the cancer. It can also be a side effect of treatment.

Fatigue can be especially difficult to deal with when you’re already trying to cope with cancer. You may feel very tired or exhausted all or most of the time. This can be frustrating and feel overwhelming at times. Many people find their fatigue is distressing and has as much impact as the other side effects of cancer treatment.

CRF is different from the tiredness and fatigue that someone without cancer may get. People with cancer may get tired much more quickly after less activity. When healthy people get fatigued, it’s usually relieved by rest and sleep, whereas CRF isn’t. The fatigue usually gets better after treatment finishes, but it may continue for many months, or sometimes years.

It‘s important to tell your doctors and nurses about your fatigue and how it makes you feel, without playing it down. There are ways they may be able to help. For example, treating the causes of fatigue, such as anaemia or sleeplessness, can help.

There are also things you can do for yourself that may help you cope. For example, pacing yourself during the day can be very effective. Research tells us that one of the best things you can do to help manage your fatigue is to stay active and exercise in a way that feels positive to you.

Icon showing link to personalised My Macmillan account

The effects of fatigue

Fatigue can affect all areas of your life. You may be too tired to take part in daily activities, relationships and social events. It affects everyone differently and can cause many different symptoms. Some people find their fatigue is very mild and doesn’t interfere much with their daily life. But for others, it’s very disruptive.

The different levels of fatigue are described in the fatigue diary you can download here. Some of the more common effects of fatigue include:

  • Difficulty doing the smallest chores. Even everyday activities such as brushing your hair, showering or cooking can seem impossible.
  • A feeling of having no energy, as if you could spend the whole day in bed.
  • A feeling of having no strength to do anything.
  • A lack of concentration.
  • Having trouble thinking, speaking or making decisions.
  • Difficulty remembering things.
  • Feeling breathless after only light activity.
  • Dizziness or a feeling of light-headedness.
  • Difficulty sleeping (insomnia).
  • Losing interest in sex.
  • Feeling more moody and emotional than usual.

Fatigue can affect the way you think and feel. You may find it impossible to concentrate on anything, which can affect studying or your job. Money may become a problem if you need to take time off work or stop working completely.

If you are having trouble concentrating, it can also affect things that you usually enjoy doing. Even reading or watching TV can be difficult.

Fatigue can affect your relationships. You may spend less time with friends and family, or spend more time sleeping. It may make you become impatient with people around you, or you may avoid going out or being with friends because it’s too much effort.

It is important to accept that this is happening to you. Getting help and support from your healthcare team may help to prevent or relieve some of these effects, and improve your quality of life.

My concentration level was upside down. Just actually getting out of bed was hard. Going downstairs was hard. Simply washing my hands or turning the tap was hard.


Back to Tiredness (fatigue)

What causes fatigue?

There are many causes of fatigue. Knowing about them may help you to cope with your fatigue a bit better.

Tips for better rest

Tiredness can affect your sleeping patterns. There are ways to manage this so you get the most out of your rest.