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Cancer-Related Fatigue: Myth or Reality?

Fatigue affects many people, but cancer related fatigue is a very different malady.
PUBLISHED January 09, 2017
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
The Dictionary defines fatigue as extreme tiredness, typically resulting from mental or physical exertion or illness. Fatigue is a very common complaint. It’s important to remember fatigue is a symptom, not a disease. Many illnesses can result in the complaint of fatigue. They can be physical, psychological or a combination of the two. Often, symptoms of fatigue have a gradual onset. The affected person may not be aware of how much energy they have lost until comparing their ability to complete tasks from one time frame to another. They may presume their fatigue is due to aging or perhaps other reasons. They may ignore symptoms until they become debilitating and may delay seeking medical care.
 
What’s the difference between regular fatigue and cancer-related fatigue? Fatigue is being tired – physically, mentally and emotionally. It means having less energy to do the things you need or want to do as you go about your daily life. Usually, regular fatigue can be remedied by periods of rest and relaxation. It doesn’t usually last for long periods of time. Cancer-related fatigue is different. Cancer-related fatigue is worse and causes more distress. People describe it as feeling of weakness, listlessness, being drained or wiped out. Cancer-related fatigue makes it difficult to function. Some may feel too tired to eat, walk to the bathroom or even perform simple tasks. It can be hard to think, as well as move your body. Rest doesn’t help it go away. For some people, this kind of fatigue causes more distress than pain, nausea, vomiting or depression. Cancer-related fatigue is worse than everyday fatigue. It lasts longer, and sleep doesn’t make it better. It’s unpredictable. People describe it as overwhelming, affecting every part of their lives.
 
According to an article by the National Institute of Health, “Fatigue is one of the most common adverse effects of cancer that might persist for years after treatment completion in otherwise healthy survivors. Cancer-related fatigue causes disruption in all aspects of quality of life and might be a risk factor of reduced survival. The prevalence and course of fatigue in patients with cancer have been well characterized and there is growing understanding of the underlying biological mechanisms. Inflammation seems to have a key role in fatigue before, during, and after cancer-treatment.”
 
Some symptoms of cancer-related fatigue, according to the American Cancer Society are:
 
·         A constant feeling of tiredness that doesn’t ever go away or get better
·         Being more tired than usual before, during, or after activities
·         Feeling too tired to perform normal routine tasks
·         Feeling general weakness or lethargy
·         Lacking energy
·         Being tired even after a good night’s sleep
·         Inability to concentrate or focus
·         Inability to remember
·         Being sad, irritable or depressed
·         Easily frustrated or angered
·         Trouble sleeping/insomnia
·         Difficulty moving arms or legs
 
Cancer-related fatigue can disrupt everyday activities and interfere with normal routines. Though fatigue is a distressing symptom, medical staff may view it as a secondary complaint. This reason is why many affected by cancer seldom report it. Cancer-related fatigue can be worse one day and better the next. It may cause you to struggle being with friends or family. It may affect your ability to work. It may affect your ability to follow your cancer treatment plan. For those suffering from cancer-related fatigue, it does disrupt quality of life to some degree or another and can strike without warning.
 
It may not be easy to discuss your symptoms or concerns about fatigue with your medical team, but it’s important to let them know how you’re feeling. If cancer-related fatigue is affecting your life, your doctor may be able to offer a healthy solution. A good medical professional should be able to help if they know you’re having a problem. Managing fatigue is part of good cancer care. Work with your cancer care team to find and treat the causes of your fatigue.
 
How long does cancer-related fatigue last? No one really knows, but it may last for many months to many years. It can often continue after treatment ends. There’s no way of knowing who it will affect and who it won’t. Some people are affected on a daily basis, and some barely notice any symptoms at all.
 
I have personally struggled with cancer-related fatigue. I’ve noticed it has become more severe than it was initially after surgery and treatment. At first, I thought I was just suffering the effects of aging, but at 59, I’m not that old. I have always been a very active person and have enjoyed many physically demanding types of activities. Shortly after I had healed from breast cancer surgery, I noticed my stamina waning. It became difficult for me to perform my normal household routines. I kept thinking things would get better and attributed my lack of energy to a possible vitamin deficiency. I discussed the fatigue with my doctor and after a battery of blood tests, he found a vitamin D deficiency. I was prescribed a supplement, but after months of being on the increased dose of vitamin D, I did not see any change in my level of energy. The fatigue has affected every area of my life. It is an effort to perform any of my normal routine tasks and I am in constant pain. The only way I can describe it is a feeling of having the flu. Every muscle and bone in my body aches.
 
I’ve learned to set limits on what I can and can’t do, although it’s been hard. My family has noticed a change since I was diagnosed with cancer. They are accommodating and understanding, which I appreciate very much. It has been challenging to admit I am constantly weak and tired, but it comforts me to know I’m not the only one suffering. In my humble opinion, I believe cancer-related fatigue is very real. I make this statement using my own experience as physical proof. My fatigue has become so severe I am planning to discuss it with my oncologist at my next appointment. I have no idea how he’ll want to treat it but I’m hoping he’ll listen and show concern for my symptoms. Cancer-related fatigue may not seem to be a legitimate complaint but for those who suffer from it, we know the debilitating side effects and how it adversely affects our lives. As an end note, I’d like to add it was difficult for me to type this article. My body is not happy. My shoulders and arms are aching. But this is my life and I’ve learned to deal with it. Thanks, cancer, you just keep on giving…
 
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