Fatigue after cancer treatment

Fatigue is the most common side-effect of cancer treatment. Fatigue means feeling very tired and lacking in energy to do day-to-day things.

Fatigue is very different to ‘normal’ tiredness. It doesn’t always go away with rest and sleep.

Fatigue after cancer treatment can be caused by many different things:
  • Having had chemotherapy or radiotherapy 
  • Lack of sleep 
  • Poor diet
  • Low red blood cell count (anaemia) 
  • Depression 
  • Medications
Some kinds of fatigue can last months or even years after treatment. Fatigue that lasts for more than six months after treatment has ended is known as persistent cancer-related fatigue.
Fatigue can be mild or more severe. Different people experience fatigue in different ways.  It can be very disruptive and can really affect your day-to-day activities and your quality of life. 
If you have fatigue you may find:
  • Simple chores such as showering or preparing food seem overwhelming.
  • You feel as if you have no energy and could spend whole days in bed.
  • You have trouble thinking, speaking or making decisions. 
  • You feel breathless after only light activity. 
  • You have trouble getting to sleep (insomnia).
  • You lose your sex drive.
  • You feel sad, frustrated or upset.

What medical help is available for fatigue?

A lot of cancer survivors do not report fatigue to their doctors or nurses because they think that nothing can be done for it. In fact, there are things that can be done for it.
Speak to your nurse specialist, GP or consultant if fatigue is troubling you. He or she can help to find out what is causing it. For example, any medication you may be taking, pain, lack of sleep or poor nutrition. 

Knowing the cause of your fatigue and treating the problem can help to improve your symptoms.

A programme is available to help people suffering from persistent fatigue, called Understanding and Managing Persistent Cancer-related Fatigue: A Self Help psycho-oncology programme using cognitive behavoural strategies.  
The programme explains special techniques that can help you to deal better with persistent fatigue. For more information call our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700.

How can I cope better with fatigue?

It is helpful to find ways of managing your fatigue and tiredness yourself. Recognising the symptoms can be helpful and making small changes can help save energy.
  • Set small manageable goals
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help, such as getting a friend to collect your children from school or run errands
  • Plan ahead
  • Rest before you get too tired
  • Try not to rush – allow plenty of time to get around or to appointments
  • Sit down to do tasks whenever possible, such as when ironing, shaving or preparing food
  • Say no to things that you really don’t feel like doing and try not to please others
  • Sit down while talking on the mobile phone
  • Don’t do the shopping during busy times 
  • If you have children, plan your play time with them and try to play sitting down
  • Try to take time out to relax and do things you enjoy
  • Do some relaxation exercises both for your mind and your body
  • Do some light exercises, such as walking  
  • Share your concerns with family or friends or attend a support group 

Exercise is good for fatigue

Although it can help to rest when you are fatigued, it is also important to try and exercise. Taking light exercise can actually raise energy levels and can improve fatigue and other cancer-related symptoms.
Light exercise also lifts your mood and improves your overall health and wellbeing. See our Staying Healthy after Cancer section for more information on how to exercise after cancer.

Fatigue diary

Keeping a fatigue diary can help you to identify when your energy levels are highest, how you felt at different times and what helped you. This can help you to plan your day better.
For example, if you have errands to run or plan to return to work.

Call our Cancer Nurseline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 6pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm
Date Last Reviewed: 
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Date Last Revised: 
Tuesday, November 24, 2015