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UPMC Physical Therapist: Cancer Affects Stamina, Energy

by Shari Berthold, DPT

If you experience fatigue during or after cancer treatment, you are not alone. Fatigue, usually described as feeling tired, weak, or exhausted, affects most people during cancer treatment with 14-96% of survivors experiencing some form during active treatment and 19-82% in the years after treatment is complete. Fatigue can have a profound effect on one’s ability to participate in self-care, family, and work roles and can impact quality of life.

What Causes Cancer Fatigue

Fatigue can have many causes including:

  • anemia (the lack of oxygenated red blood cells)
  • medication side effects
  • hormone imbalances
  • heart, lung, and kidney damage
  • nutritional deficiencies and dehydration
  • depression physical deconditioning
  • sleep disturbances
  • and cancer progression or recurrence.  

Not everyone who has cancer experiences fatigue. And if you do, the level of cancer fatigue you experience can vary — you may feel a mild lack of energy, or you may feel completely wiped out.

Your cancer fatigue may occur episodically and last just a short while, or it may last for several months after you complete treatment.

Treatment Options

Some fatigue during cancer treatment is to be expected. But if you find that cancer fatigue is persistent, lasting weeks, and interferes with your ability to go about your everyday tasks, tell your doctor.

Treatment for fatigue is individualized and often comprised of a multi-discipline approach including nutrition, energy conservation, counseling, medication, and exercise. 

It is a common myth that rest is the best treatment for fatigue. This belief further compounds the problem as rest leads to further inactivity that leads to further weakness and a downhill cycle develops that can even lead to disability. This belief can be promoted by family, friends, and even health care professionals. 

Exercise, however, for the treatment of fatigue is supported by a high level of evidence and is strongly recommended. Exercise can include cardiovascular forms like walking and biking, stretching, and strengthening. It’s important to consult with your doctor before starting any exercise routine and no matter what, take it slow. 

If you struggle to get started or you’re not seeing progress over time, ask your provider for a referral to physical therapy. A physical therapist will identify your risk factors for exercise and design specific exercise programs with modifications to meet your individual needs.

Learn more about Cancer Care and support services at UPMC.