Fighting Fatigue

Exercise restores energy to fatigued survivors.

As an anesthesiologist for a busy practice, Liz Almli, MD, was used to working long days and being on call. Then breast cancer hit three years ago.

Diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer, Almli, now 47, endured four months of Adriamycin (doxorubicin), Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide), and Taxol (paclitaxel), followed by a double mastectomy and Herceptin (trastuzumab). Fatigue hit hard during and after treatment, Almli says, and upon returning to work, she looked for ways to reclaim her energy.

She discovered Beat Cancer Boot Camp (, a workout program based on a Navy SEAL boot camp regimen that includes strength training and aerobic exercises. The program is held in public parks in Tucson, Arizona, for survivors, their friends, and family members.

“Sometimes I’m tired, got a headache from work, and I really don’t want to exercise,” Almli says. “But then I get out in the sunshine, and after I exercise, I feel great, and I’m so glad I went.”

Researchers are discovering that exercise, which used to be considered something that would tire a fatigued survivor more, is in fact showing promise in alleviating the side effect.

According to the American Cancer Society, fatigue is the most common side effect of cancer and its treatments. Almost 50 percent of cancer survivors report fatigue that persists for months and even years after treatment.

Fatigue is felt on different levels with some survivors experiencing low energy, others feeling totally wiped out, and some feeling depressed or frustrated. Carole M. Schneider, PhD, director of the Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute, says cancer-related fatigue is “multifactorial and probably has many causes.”

Many cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and stem cell transplantation, cause fatigue by damaging healthy red blood cells while targeting the cancer cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body to provide energy, and when the body has too few red blood cells, a condition called anemia, energy is decreased. The body also expends energy repairing damaged tissue and cleaning up cell waste from treatments. 

Schneider, who is also a professor of sport and exercise science at the University of Northern Colorado, added that other treatment side effects such as diarrhea, vomiting, and loss of appetite can also cause fatigue. Cancer treatments can result in damage to the heart, pulmonary toxicity that decreases lung capacity, and/or damage to the liver or kidneys, which affects metabolism—all of which can contribute to fatigue. There may be other causes of fatigue that are simply not understood.

However, the good thing about exercise is, across the board, it helps in all these areas. “Exercise improves the cardiovascular, pulmonary, muscular, endocrine, immune, and neural systems,” Schneider says.

In the past few years, many studies on exercise combating fatigue in survivors have emerged. Published in The Cochrane Library last year, a review of 28 studies (including a total of more than 2,000 patients of various cancer types) concluded that exercise is beneficial in treating cancer-related fatigue, but that further studies need to be done on the type, intensity, and timing of the exercise.

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