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Cancer Health Center

Overcoming Cancer-Related Fatigue

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

When you have cancer, you're tired. Fatigue may be a symptom of the cancer or a side effect of treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation. The stress of living with cancer can also leave you exhausted. "Fortunately, there's a lot that cancer patients can do to overcome fatigue," says Carmelita P. Escalante, MD, professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

The first step is taking fatigue seriously. Coping with fatigue can improve your quality of life and help you recover from cancer treatment faster. Plus, fatigue can be a symptom of other illnesses, including diabetes, thyroid problems, heart disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. So talk to your doctor so she can evaluate your fatigue.

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Give Sleep a Chance

Pain, stress, and side effects of cancer treatments can make it hard to get a restful sleep. A sleepless night can leave you tired all day. Good sleep habits can help you fall asleep and stay asleep more easily.

  • Go to bed at about the same time every night.
  • Avoid stimulating activities (like watching TV or doing work) right before bed.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine in the evenings.
  • Get out of bed if you can't sleep after 15 or 20 minutes. That way you won't associate the bed with sleeplessness. Do something relaxing, such as listening to calming music or reading. When you feel tired, go back to bed again.

Get Moving

It may sound counterintuitive, but physical activity is one of the most effective ways to fight fatigue, says Escalante. "Just walking for 20 minutes a day can help you feel better and more energetic." If walking is difficult for you, try using a stationary bike or sign up for a water aerobics class. Before you start any physical activity program, talk to your doctor to make sure you don't have any health restrictions.

Fill Up on High-Energy Foods

Your appetite probably isn't what it was before you had cancer. Even when you don't feel like eating, you still need to get all the nutrients your body requires. If you fall short on nutrition, you'll be more fatigued. As a compromise between nutrition and your appetite, eat small meals frequently during the day. Choose nutritious foods like nuts, eggs, beans, lentils, fruits, and vegetables. Also, make it a goal to eat at least two servings of fish a week -- evidence shows omega-3 fats may ease fatigue by reducing inflammation.

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