It's one of those things that you "have-to-have-been-there" to fully comprehend. The fatigue of cancer that, when compared with "normal" tiredness, is like comparing a gentle summer breeze to a level 5 tsunami.
I know words alone couldn't properly convey my own cancer fatigue symptoms - at least to anyone who hadn't experienced cancer fatigue themselves. My attempts at comparisons were futile: describing cancer fatigue as mono fatigue but without the break from school to watch daytime TV; Pregnancy fatigue but without the anticipation; medical school all-nighter fatigue, but without the adrenaline rush.
Even descriptions of the symptom itself were in vain: so tired that your eyelashes weigh a thousand pounds; so tired that fatigue is synonymous with pain; so tired that no amount of sleep imaginable can be visualized as an antidote.
The duration differs too. You can't measure it in days like that cram session, in weeks like in pregnancy, or in months as in mono. A better description of duration is in years.
Thankfully, treatments have been studied and are readily available! Or, maybe the word thankfully was spoken too soon. To be effective a treatment has to be offered, or prescribed. But when it comes to cancer fatigue, that's not happening nearly enough.
A new study checked out people with stage 4 cancers of the lungs, breast, colon, and prostate. Upon questioning, only 16% said their physicians had mentioned any of the cancer fatigue treatments that are recommended based on National Comprehensive Care Network Guidelines. Can you imagine if only 16% of these patients had treatments recommended to treat their cancers? Or even if only 16% had been offered treatment to help cope with chemotherapy related nausea?
Clearly, there is significant room for improvement. And perhaps the first step is acknowledging that, despite living in a world in which nearly everyone complains of being tired, cancer fatigue is a different bird.
What are some of these treatments that can make a difference in cancer fatigue?
- Regular physical activity - It may seem counterintuitive, but regular exercise, for example walking with a pedometer, does decrease cancer fatigue. Check with your doctor to see if you have any restrictions. Many cancer centers are now offering exercise programs designed specifically for cancer patients.
- Stress management - Not only does stress make you feel, well, stressed, it can contribute to fatigue.
- Psychosocial support - Inadequate support from loved ones can worsen fatigue when you're living with cancer.
- Medications - For some people, medications (similar to those used for children with attention deficit disorder) may help with fatigue.
Sadly, sleeping pills - the least effective treatment for cancer fatigue - were prescribed to 35% of the patients in this study.
Is cancer fatigue really all that important?
I don't think anyone needs a study to prove that fatigue interferes with quality of life. But - start the drum roll - fatigue can play a role in surviving cancer as well.
I know I've been standing on my soapbox lately, shouting that we need to be our own advocates with cancer, or have loved ones help advocate for us. I'll add another point to my list here.
Learn About Cancer Fatigue
Alternative Treatments Effective for Fatigue
Mayo Clinic. Cancer Patients May Not be Getting Adequate Care for Debilitating Fatigue, Mayo Clinic Finds. December 18, 2012. http://www.mayoclinic.org/news2012-rst/7217.html