10 Ways to Fight Fatigue from Cancer Treatment

There’s tired… and then there’s cancer-tired. Even if you have the most chipper, most can-do attitude in the world and are sucking down a giant iced latte, cancer can still drain the pep from your step and leave you completed deflated.

It’s normal to feel tired, even tired all the way down to your bones. Treatment, and the whole cancer experience, is tiring. Here are a few of the reasons why:

  • The actual cancer. Some cancers release fatigue-causing proteins, some weaken muscles or organs, and some alter hormones. All these things can affect energy levels, which means that cancer can be tiring before you even begin treatment.
  • Cancer treatment. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can destroy healthy cells and therefore zap energy. The side effects of these therapies, as well as some cancer medications, can also cause fatigue. It’s tiring just thinking about it.
  • Anemia. Your red blood cells can be reduced by cancer treatment, which means you’ll have fewer oxygen-carrying cells and less energy. Anemia happens to about 50 percent of cancer patients at some point during their treatment. (More on cancer and anemia here).
  • Emotional exhaustion. Even if you are lucky enough to have a great support team, explaining your cancer, driving to treatment, and the daunting task of thinking about your own mortality are draining. It may take all your mental focus just to get out of bed in the morning.
  • Changes in diet. Perhaps you can no longer eat the nutritious foods you once enjoyed, and crackers are all you can stomach. The lack of nutrition or poor nutrition forced upon you by cancer can take its toll on your energy stores.

It’s normal to be tired, but that doesn’t mean we want to feel that way. Here are 10 strategies for scrimping, saving, and maximizing the energy you do have:

1. Try to get enough calories

There are barriers to eating a full three-course meal when you’re going through treatment. Nausea, diarrhea, and changed tastes are just a few. But your body needs fuel to fight cancer, and you should talk to your medical team about how many calories you should aim for each day and what foods you should be eating. You may find you can only tolerate certain foods. If so, go ahead and eat only those foods. Treatment time is not the time to start a diet, because the main thing is that you get enough.

Focus on eating small meals throughout the day, and if there’s a time when you have more energy or appetite, schedule meals then. Ask friends to bring you meals or to join you for meals so that eating doesn’t require a lot of work and is something to look forward to. Try to include protein, and be sure to stay hydrated too!

2. Just Say No To Stress

This is easier said than done, but when you’re fighting cancer, you have to give yourself permission to use all your extra mental and emotional capacity to fight the cancer that’s trying to take over your body—you can’t waste precious emotional resources thinking about if your house is clean or if you sent a birthday card to your uncle. It’s time to massively let things go.

Not even the strongest of us has an unlimited store of emotional resources, so if you spend time and energy worry on something unimportant (like whether or not your socks match) then you will have less energy for things that really matter, like staying positive or catching up with friends.

Be stingy about how you spend your mental and emotional resources so that you have enough leftover to take care of yourself. Keep to-do lists small so that you can feel accomplished when you finish one or two things, and make sure that people know that they should adjust expectations until treatment is over.

“NEXT” for more ways to fight fatigue

Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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