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Virtually Exhausted: Doctors, Others Get a Taste of Cancer Patient Fatigue

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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.

And it's important to do so, says Russell Portenoy, MD, chairman of the Department of Pain and Palliative Care at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. "I don't think there's any question that fatigue can have an impact on how patients physically deal with the disease," he says. Fatigue can lead to secondary problems such as blood clots associated with not moving around much, and it can also have an indirect negative affect on the immune system.

Portenoy now knows about extreme fatigue firsthand, thanks to the virtual reality fatigue machine. He says he spent a "miserable" 10 minutes hooked up to it. "The bottom line -- it was an intense, negative feeling," he says.

Vital Information:

  • Health care workers can now experience severe fatigue, a common complaint among cancer patients, by using a virtual reality device.
  • Common causes of fatigue among patients are anemia, depression, stress, difficulty sleeping, and the use of morphine-based painkillers.
  • Fatigue often goes untreated, in part because patients don't know there are remedies and don't discuss the problem with their physicians.
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