Cancer fatigue: Does Cancer Make you Tired?

Do you feel like you are tired all the time and that most, if not what seems like all of your energy has been zapped? If so, you should know that what you are feeling is quite common among cancer patients. Why? Because fatigue is a common symptom of cancer and side effect of cancer treatment.

Before we delve deeper into how and why cancer can make you feel tired, let’s review just how common having cancer — and having cancer fatigue really is.

The American Cancer Society predicted that there would be 1,658,370 new cases of cancer within the U.S. in 2015. That figure represents nearly 4,544 new cases each day. There are many different types of cancer. Some of them are easier to identify than others.

Different cancers affect the mind, body, and spirit differently — but most of them make their recipient feel tired at some point or the other.  This tiredness, known as cancer fatigue, is something that happens to a majority of cancer patients – so it is quite common. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society estimates that more than 50 percent of people who have cancer will experience cancer-related fatigue while living with the condition.

What is Cancer Fatigue?

Does cancer make you tired? You better believe it can. It can cause a bone-deep sense of tired that feels like no other form of tiredness that you’ve felt before. You might even feel like there is no end to the tiredness in sight.

When some cancer patients describe the tiredness they feel when they have cancer they often say that it is a deep and overwhelming sense of fatigue that interferes with their ability to function normally or participate fully in their life.  Other cancer patients describe it as feeling drained, weak, and pretty much “washed out”.

cancer fatigue

This fatigue isn’t just physical exhaustion either. It’s mental and emotional exhaustion as well.

Now everyone experiences physical exhaustion in their daily lives from time to time — and mental and emotional exhaustion too. But with rest, good eating habits, one or two good night’s of sound sleep, and perhaps a relaxing vacation, that fatigue disappears. With cancer though, that fatigue can linger.

Symptoms of Cancer-Related Fatigue

As mentioned, being tired is something everyone, healthy or otherwise, experiences along the way. Cancer-related fatigue, or CRF, though, is a completely different ball game. One unlike any other “tired” most people will ever experience.

In most cases, people suffering with fatigue can find relief by resting and getting more sleep. This isn’t typically the case with cancer-related fatigue. You may spend days in bed without finding the restoration that often comes with a good night’s sleep in healthier circumstances.

There is quite a long list of  common cancer-related fatigue symptoms. Do you have any of them?

  • Exhaustion that doesn’t go away with a good night’s sleep.
  • Feeling more fatigued than usual during or after normal activities.
  • Feeling drained of energy despite not being active.
  • Feelings of weakness.
  • Sleeping or remaining in bed for more than 24 hours.
  • Fatigue that interferes with work or family life.
  • Frustration and irritability related to things that normally don’t bother you.
  • Weight loss.
  • Loss of interest in or desire for sex.
  • Clumsiness.
  • Changes in hair or skin.
  • Intolerances to cold.
  • Weight loss.
  • Weight gain.

But you ask, should I consult my physician over my cancer-related fatigue symptoms? You should always mention your tiredness to your physician even if you are able to push through it and function normally. However, any time fatigue begins to affect your ability to function at work, engage in social activities, and be there for your family, it has become a problem that you should definitely discuss with your oncologist or physician. Check this article for other common cancer symptoms.

As the Mayo Clinic recommends, It is important to consult your physician immediately if you experience any of the systems listed below:

  • You become confused.
  • You are unable to get out of bed for 24 hours or longer.
  • You experience worsening fatigue symptoms.
  • You become severely short of breath.
  • You lose your balance.

Before an effective management plan for your cancer fatigue can be created, your doctor will need to ask a wide range of questions to help determine the severity, duration, and potential causes of your fatigue.  

Now, if you’re having issues with memory or mental clarity, consider keeping a journal of how fatigue is affecting your daily activities and state of mind.  This journal is something you can bring to doctor’s appointments with you to help jog your memory and explain the toll your particular fatigue is taking on your life. It may even help to establish contributing factors that may be causing, at least some of, your fatigue.

Questions your doctor will likely ask and want answered include:

  • How long have you been experiencing this notable fatigue?
  • When do you seem to experience the worst symptoms of fatigue?
  • How long does fatigue last when you’re experiencing it?
  • How severe is your fatigue?
  • Has your fatigue changed over time and how has it changed?
  • Are there things that relieve your fatigue?
  • What sorts of things seem to make your fatigue worse?
  • Do you have other health conditions that could be causing your fatigue?
  • Have you noticed other changes in health that are related to your cancer?

The more specific you are in your answers, the easier it will be for your physician to narrow down the cause so he or she can focus your fatigue treatment and management plan accordingly.

What Causes Cancer Fatigue?

One of the biggest questions you may have when experiencing this condition is “How does cancer make you tired?” One of the first steps in discerning a proper system to manage your fatigue or cancer-related exhaustion is to determine the most likely cause, or causes, or your fatigue.  

I know I’ve said this before, but every person, every cancer is different. The cause of CRF in one person may not be the same for you. Click To Tweet

However, with that in mind, there are some common causes of cancer-related fatigue, which include:

Calorie Stealer. Cancer, above all else, it taxing on the body. Cancer steals calories and robs normal cells of vital nutrients that sustain health and energize the body. This, by itself, can lead to a sense of fatigue that is overwhelming and, sometimes, feels as though it will never end. You also might not be eating as well as you normally would, depriving your cells of vital nutrients that your body needs to function normally, let alone thrive.  

Chemotherapy.  Unfortunately, many of the treatments that help your body fight the cancer also lead to cancer-related fatigue. These treatments include chemotherapy, which can leave you depleted of energy for as little as a few days following the treatment to several weeks after each treatment.

Radiation Therapy.  Radiation therapy for cancer also leads to a serious sense of tiredness that typically lasts three to four weeks beyond the treatment. That isn’t always the case, though. Sometimes, it will last for up to three months once the treatment ends.

Cancer Medications. Even standard cancer medications that are prescribed to target the cancer can lead to constant feelings of fatigue among patients.

Surgery.  Many cancers require surgery to attack the cancer directly, remove tumors, and prevent the spread of the cancer to other areas of the body. Surgeries vary in complexity and impact on the body and every patient is different. Some can leave you facing mild, moderate, or even severe exhaustion as you recover.

Bone Marrow Transplant. One of the more aggressive treatment options for cancer patients is the bone marrow transplant. This treatment exacts a heavy toll on the human body that can lead you to feel excessively tired for up to an entire year.

Other Reasons for Your Tiredness

Other common culprits that cause fatigue among cancer patients include the following:

  • Combination therapies
  • Hormone replacement therapy
  • Anemia / Low Blood Count
  • Underactive thyroid
  • Metabolic changes caused by the cancer
  • Biologic therapy
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Pain
  • Hormonal Changes
  • Lack of Exercise
  • Poor nutrition (many medications, treatments, and symptoms of cancer itself lead to nausea and an inability to maintain a healthy diet)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

As you can see, there are many ways that cancer can make you tired. For you — as it is with many cancer patients, it might be a combination of factors that causes cancer fatigue, rather than one issue alone.

Unfortunately, cancer-related fatigue that is the result of cancer treatments, like radiation, chemotherapy, and bone marrow transplants, often cannot result in a change of treatment methods. These treatments, while potentially harsh, may be the only effective treatments available for certain types of cancers. These treatments often cannot be changed though other cancer medications, treatments, and clinical trials may offer room for changes.

Treating and Managing Cancer Fatigue

While there isn’t one specific treatment that is effective for eliminating all instances of cancer fatigue,  there are treatment options and fatigue management plans that your doctor can advise to help you get through those tough moments, find relief, and restore quality of life during your cancer treatment.

Work with Your Physician and Oncologist

Discussing your fatigue with your physician is the first step toward creating a treatment plan to help you manage the symptoms.  Once you’ve identified the underlying cause of your fatigue, your physician may be able to prescribe medications to treat the culprit.

In the case of conditions like underactive thyroid, anemia, and malnutrition related to nausea, there may be medications you can take to ease these symptoms so you can restore your health and energy.

Depression can also be treated with medications that will help to reduce feelings of fatigue as well. Blood transfusions can help in some instances as can effective pain management protocols, medications, and treatments.

Some physicians may prescribe vitamin B12 injections, iron supplements, or even folic acid to help boost energy as well.

Sleep aids, either medicinal or behavioral (keeping your room cooler for sleep, drinking chamomile tea before bed, or even taking a relaxing bath before going to bed), can be prescribed to help improve the quality and quantity of sleep you get.

It’s important to work with your doctor to come up with the right balance for your treatment so that you don’t inadvertently exacerbate the problem by taking sleep aids that will increase your feelings of fatigue. There are many treatment options available that may not cure your fatigue altogether, but can help make it more manageable.

Managing Your Life in Spite of Cancer Fatigue

Cancer fatigue can be brutal, right? But it doesn’t have to take control of your life. You may have to make adjustments to accommodate the fatigue and work around it. Some of the things you can do to manage your cancer-related fatigue include:

  • Making changes at work. This includes things like asking your employer if you can adjust your work schedule so you can be more productive. This might involve taking a nap in the middle of the workday and working additional hours to make up for the lost time. It could also include adjusting your work hours so that you can work when you are most alert and productive or even telecommuting so you aren’t using up all your energy getting to and from the office.
  • Prioritizing activities. Rank your activities according to what is most important. Save your energy for these events and let other things go for the time being.
  • Asking for help. This is one of the most difficult aspects of managing fatigue and living with cancer. You will need help at some point. Most people are very willing to offer it. You only need to let them know how they can help.
  • Exercising. While this might sound like counterintuitive to what you’re trying to accomplish, exercise is energizing. Try to work short, light exercises into your routine daily whenever possible. It will help to provide instant and lasting bursts of energy that can help you power through some of the more intense periods of fatigue.
  • Resting and relaxing.  Sometimes, it’s simply necessary to give your body an opportunity to recover. This might include things like taking quick catnaps throughout the day, vegging out on the sofa in the evening, or engaging in soothing activities.
Cancer fatigue can be brutal. But it doesn't have to take control of your life. Click To Tweet

Here’s the Takeaway

Excessive fatigue, while common among cancer patients, is not something you simply have to live with. There are effective methods for treating and managing this condition. The key, though, is to have open communication with your physician about how tired you are and how your symptoms of fatigue are interfering with your life, your family, your career, and your state of mind.

These are all important considerations in any effective cancer treatment plan. Overwhelming fatigue should not be dismissed, ignored, or overlooked by you or your physician. Your mental health and wellbeing play important roles in helping you to fight off the cancer that is waging war on your body. Arm yourself with the best weapon against it by speaking up about how tired you are and working with your doctor to find real solutions.

Does cancer make you tired? Absolutely. But who has the last word on it? You do. You can have the last word by taking control, getting answers, and finding solutions that restore your energy and relieve your fatigue.

If you have any questions about cancer-related fatigue, send them directly to us at .

Get a Consultation from a Top Oncologist
Expert US Oncologists provide answers to your questions

Request Now

The following two tabs change content below.
Michel completed his Oncology training at the University of California at San Diego and specialized in cancers of the kidneys, prostate and testicular cancer at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. With the constant changes in diagnostic tests and treatment options, he believes every patient should have access to the highest level of care.

About Michel Choueiri

Michel completed his Oncology training at the University of California at San Diego and specialized in cancers of the kidneys, prostate and testicular cancer at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. With the constant changes in diagnostic tests and treatment options, he believes every patient should have access to the highest level of care.

2 thoughts on “Cancer fatigue: Does Cancer Make you Tired?

  1. Interesting info. For a year or so before my diagnosis, my ability to recover from exercise steadily decreased. Energy levels plummetted. Since the cancer was walnut size, some thought it would not create much of an energy drain when I asked about my pre-diagnosis fatigue. After reading the article I wonder if energy was diverted to an immune system response against the disease.

  2. I don’t have money to buy expensive things for energy, what can I. Eat, or take for fatigue from kidney cancer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *