Virtually Exhausted: Doctors, Others Get a Taste of Cancer Patient Fatigue
Feb. 18, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Making toast, answering the doorbell, even
picking up the remote control: These can become near-insurmountable tasks for
patients with cancer, many of whom suffer from an obvious, yet often
overlooked, side effect: fatigue.
But now some health care workers have been given a taste of what cancer
patients go through, thanks to a virtual reality machine called In My Steps.
"It's designed to provide physicians and health care workers of all types a
feeling of what it's like to be fatigued," says Gregory A. Curt, MD,
clinical director at the National Cancer Institute and one of the designers of
the machine. "You put on one of these virtual reality helmets ... [are
taken] into a home and try to do simple tasks like answering the door,
answering the phone. Your feet are in a passive-resistance machine, which makes
you feel like you're treading through molasses."
Numerous hospital workers experienced that frustrating feeling last year
after Ortho Biotech, one of the makers of In My Steps, took it on a
demonstration tour across the U.S. The company is now doing the same thing in
Europe. Ortho Biotech's interest in the issue of cancer fatigue is not wholly
academic. The company manufactures a synthetic version of erythropoietin, a
hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells -- and which can
therefore be used to treat anemia, a leading cause of fatigue in cancer
But anemia isn't the only reason cancer patients get so tired. Curt says
depression, stress, trouble sleeping, and using morphine-based painkillers are
among the common reasons they can suffer extreme fatigue.
And cancer patients say it is, indeed, extreme. "It's very hard to
explain to someone," says 59-year-old Marilyn Sonenshine of Atlanta, who is
currently under treatment for lung cancer. "You don't have enough energy to
walk across the room. You just feel so wiped out. It's a different sort of
fatigue; a helpless feeling."
"Even talking is very tiring," says Robin McIlvain of Marietta, Ga.,
who was treated last year for breast cancer. "I'm a very social person, and
I find even long conversations can tire me out."
And they're not alone. "We're just beginning to realize how common it
is," says Terri Ades, RN, MS, director of Health Content at the American
Cancer Society's national office in Atlanta. "It's sort of like pain
control. For many years patients put up with their pain. And I think patients
have put up with their fatigue, as well."
In fact, Curt says fatigue is the No. 1 problem cancer patients complain
about -- far ahead of nausea or pain -- and that few discuss the problem with
their doctor, in part because they assume nothing can be done about it. But he
says there is nearly always a way to lessen the problem.