Understanding Cancer-Related Fatigue

This content is written for patients and/or people affected by cancer to help explain the symptoms and impacts of cancer-related fatigue.

Written by Dr Alicia Hughes, Health Psychologist specialising in Fatigue


What is cancer-related fatigue?

Fatigue is a feeling of tiredness and exhaustion. 1 But cancer-related fatigue is different from usual tiredness. It’s much more severe and doesn't usually go away with sleep or rest. 2


How common is cancer-related fatigue?

Cancer-related fatigue is very common. Up to 99% of people with cancer experience fatigue. 2 For some it’s the most difficult symptom to deal with.


How does cancer-related fatigue affect people?

It affects people in many ways, physically, emotionally, and mentally. 2

For example, some people have ‘brain fog’, where they find it difficult to think clearly, or to concentrate. Even just watching TV can be too taxing.

Other symptoms of fatigue include muscle weakness and a lack of energy. This can make everyday tasks like cooking, shopping, even showering difficult.

Fatigue can also have a negative impact on mood. Some people lose interest in things they've probably previously enjoyed and generally feel low.

So, fatigue can be really frustrating and can have a big impact on your life. 2


How can you manage cancer-related fatigue?

It can be challenging to explain this level of fatigue and exhaustion to family and friends and even to your doctor or nurse.1  In fact, sometimes fatigue is overlooked or misunderstood. 2 Yet fatigue is a very real and difficult symptom to live with.

Some people find talking to family or friends about cancer fatigue can be helpful. 3

For most people, fatigue starts to improve after treatment finishes. 2 However, this can be a slow process and it will take a while before you get your energy levels back.  For some people, fatigue continues for a long time after treatment. 2

Everyone's journey with fatigue is different. However, the good news is there are some things that can help along the way.

One thing research has consistently found that helps with cancer fatigue is exercise. 4  I know that exercise is usually the last thing people want to do when exhausted. But it's really important to keep your body moving.

Exercise doesn't have to be in the gym or for a long session. It could be going for a short walk each day and building up the distance over time.  The most important thing is to find a way to keep your body moving that works for you.2,5

The Cope with Cancer Fatigue section of this website can help you find an activity to try.  The website also has an activity that helps you identify what is important to you and how to prioritise things you enjoy.  The section is called My Life and Priorities.

Importantly, don't overdo it and always get advice from your doctor before starting any new exercise programmes. 2


How can you save energy if you’re experiencing cancer-related fatigue?

If you have cancer fatigue, one of the things you've probably started doing already is finding ways to save energy. This might be asking someone to help, for example going to the shops for you, or it might be allowing longer to do something or having some periods of rest in your day. 1 Building in some short rests a few times a day can help make sure that by the end of the day you're not burnt out. 1

Planning times for activity and rest can help conserve your energy for the things that you want to do. When energy is in short supply, being selective in what you spend your energy on is important. Doing things you enjoy can help to recharge your energy - the My Life and Priorities activity in this website can help you identify ways you want to spend your energy.

So, my top tips for living with cancer fatigue are:

Be kind to yourself, keep moving and use your energy for the things you enjoy.

PP-ONC-GBR-2698 /  July 2022