Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools—We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at www.cancersurvivorshipcopingtools.com,or www.clutterclearingchoices.com.
It's easy to accept certain challenging side effects from the cancer journey as a "new normal", something you can't shake no matter what. But even with cancer fatigue feeling insurmountable, there are ways to handle it.
I saw the diagnosis on my medical chart, "chronic fatigue" and felt a familiar twinge of frustration. My "chronic fatigue" diagnosis was not on my medical chart before my cancers. I wondered why it was listed as "chronic" rather than "cancer-related fatigue" (CRF)? Maybe my fatigue has more than one cause? As someone who also struggles with sleep apnea, I decided to go see a sleep psychiatrist about it all.
The sleep psychiatrist was very thorough. I knew there were patient quizzes for depression and anxiety. I learned there was also one for fatigue! The psychiatrist also ordered more thorough blood work to be done. She worked with me to tweak my CPAP machine to help me too. I was grateful and I wish I had gone to her sooner. Lesson learned: Do not put off or wait to seek help to address fatigue.
Fatigue is one cancer side effect that I will not accept long-term. Sometimes, it takes multiple doctors working from multiple angles to find ways to improve fatigue. Be your own advocate. Research possibilities that seem like they may be a possible fit for your symptoms and circumstances. Be stubborn. Look for causes and for solutions. Keep in mind that there may be more than one cause and there may be more than one solution to put in play.
First start with the basics, which include rest (sleep duration and quality), diet (including possible allergies or intolerances), exercise (notice whether you feel improved or more tired after exercise) and underlying health conditions including cancer or cancer treatments. Share your information and concerns with your doctors. Be prepared to follow through with additional testing.
Next, work on developing your fatigue toolbox. Everyone is a little different, so everyone's toolbox will be unique too. Start to try some things to help yourself and pay attention to what works and what does not. My toolbox includes getting plenty of sleep at night, taking breaks, keeping a prioritized to-do list, reducing sugar intake and reducing alcohol consumption, journaling, actively practicing gratitude and focusing on my faith.
Finally, remind yourself that life is good. I am over ten years out from my breast cancer diagnosis. After ten years, I am still here. Which direction do you point your spotlight? Do you shine your light on the empty or the full part of the glass? Remember that you can move your spotlight (your attention) around and redirect it. What inspires you? Motivational quotes? Reading the bible? Connecting with friends? Getting outdoors? Cultivating a hobby?
On a bad day, when nothing in my toolbox seems to help, I reflect on the importance of trying, trying for the sake of my family and friends when I feel like I can't try for myself. For them, I want to continue to work on being the best me that I can be.
Remember kindness. Practice kindness. "I've been searching for ways to heal myself, and I've found that kindness is the best way," Lady Gaga. Or, to put it another way "The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up," Mark Twain.
You've got this.