Exercise and Cancer Treatment-Related Fatigue

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Some patients experience fatigue as a side effect of cancer treatment. And for some of us, fatigue lingers on and on and on.

Yes, I know I should exercise. I know I should do it every day. It helps tone muscles and, given enough time and effort, it can help mold your excess flab into a more desirable shape. Exercise will lower your bad cholesterol and at the same time magically raise your good cholesterol. It burns calories but it will take a lot of exercise to burn off the candy I ate earlier today. I will even admit that sometimes after exercise, I actually feel better physically. I’m sure you can add to the wonderful list of exercise benefits. It’s good for you. It’s good for me. It’s good for everyone. So why am I almost always too tired to exercise?

Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was always tired. I worked two jobs, was caregiver to my elderly mother who had cancer and dementia, had a reasonable social life, volunteered and pursued a few hobbies. Back then I had good reason to be tired but I didn’t think I was too tired to exercise. Before cancer I was too busy to exercise. There’s a big difference. I had a sedentary lifestyle and I was fine with it. Yeah, yeah, I knew it wasn’t good for me, but I was busy with other aspects of my life. Maybe if I had felt I had more energy I would have done more exercise than walking to and from the car, but probably not.

After chemo and radiation were over, I was exhausted for a long time. It seemed that I didn’t fall asleep, but rather passed out two minutes after my head hit the pillow. Doctors know that some cancer patients have fatigue as a side effect for years after treatment but aren’t sure why. I figure it was just one way my body sent the message that it didn’t like being poisoned by chemo or burned by radiation and wanted to be sure I didn’t do either again. I made adjustments to my diet but fell short on having exercise as a component for losing weight. Thinking of the benefits, yes, exercise is good for you. I knew I should exercise but I just couldn’t bring myself to gather together enough energy to do so.

After a year I bought a stationary bike. I parked it in front of the TV. Two or three times a week I forced myself to pedal to nowhere while keeping my eye on the clock so I could quit as soon as I reached whatever small goal I set for that session. I didn’t like exercising on the bike but it was safer than a treadmill because once I got myself seated I wasn’t likely to fall off of it. No joke. I still have peripheral neuropathy and walk like a drunken sailor, especially when I am tired, so a treadmill was out of the question.

Time marches on. I have added other forms of exercise to my bag of tricks. I do stretching, lift weights, walk (indoors on a flat surface, again to avoid losing my balance and falling), continue to pedal to nowhere, and even do yoga by using a chair for balance. I don’t do any of these exercise events fast, well, or gracefully but I do them five or six days a week. I am still tired and peg my lack of energy to ongoing cancer fatigue. I have time to exercise now, but still lack the energy. I have “retired” from my second job. My caregiver days are over. My social life cut back on me (maybe it was a bit much to begin with). I have reprioritized time for hobbies but I do some volunteer work regularly. I get my eight hours of nightly beauty rest but still have to force myself to move. It’s hard to find the energy in me to exercise.

Exercise is supposed to give you energy. At least that’s what people say. Or maybe it’s what people who exercise say. I just find it draining. Sometimes I’ll only last 10 minutes even if I set the timer for 20 or 30 minutes. Again, I go back to the health benefits of exercise. They are real but so is my fatigue.

Let’s put all of this in perspective.

I was totally exhausted. I exercised a little bit.

I advanced to being just plain exhausted. I exercised a little bit more.

I then found I was really tired. I expanded my exercise repertoire.

Now I am just tired. I exercise a bit nearly every day.

I think I see a trend. At this rate in another few years either I will overcome the lingering side of effect of fatigue from cancer treatment or my fatigue will grow tired of me and leave. Either way works for me.