Living with and beyond cancer

Fatigue or weakness

Having an illness like cancer can lead to excessive tiredness and fatigue. This fatigue may be from the body’s response to repairing itself from cancer, side effects of cancer treatments, or just needing time to recover emotionally from the experience of having had a serious illness. Cancer-related fatigue can be a long-term condition, and some of the people we interviewed had to manage it within their day to day lives. As Diane described, ‘it’s a result of the (breast) cancer that I just don’t have the energy I used to have’. 
The extent to which fatigue affected the people we spoke to varied quite a bit. Having long term fatigue meant that some people couldn’t live the same kind of lives that they did before having had cancer. One woman who completed her colorectal cancer treatment five years ago still experiences ‘down days’ when she doesn’t have the energy to leave her house. Another woman finds the ‘sheer tiredness’ brought on by her lung cancer and chemotherapy is the worst long-term side effect of her illness and is still stopping her from attending social occasions several years after treatment. She sometimes feels guilty about the effect this change is having on her husband as they miss out on doing the things they used to.
Others found that they needed to scale back participating in sporting activities or exercise.  A 65 year old man who was six years post-diagnosis of prostate cancer described how his lifestyle has changed, as he had to stop doing activities or sports which were too ‘energetic’. He felt that it was important to try to keep active, but also needed to make time to rest.  Travelling abroad to visit his daughter has become difficult as any long journeys with heavy baggage are just too tiring for him.  
Some people said it was difficult to know whether tiring more easily was also due to getting older, but they noticed that they had less stamina since their cancer treatment. A 50 year old woman says, “I have to pace myself a lot,…well it’s probably because I’m getting older but I definitely don’t have the stamina or energy that I used to have before.”  A woman in her early 40’s said that six years since having ovarian cancer, “when I’m tired, I just go to bed. I probably would have soldiered on and been up to all hours to do things. I don’t do that anymore.” A man in his fifties who was diagnosed with lung cancer five years ago now finds that he has to do his gardening in stages because of tiredness, so he does a small bit then has a sleep, then he does some more.
Feeling more fatigued than normal made it hard for those people who were still working to get through the day. Louise, who is self-employed as a tour guide, described how a lack of energy makes it difficult to motivate herself to get work done. She is still on hormonal therapy (tamoxifen and Arimidex) for her breast cancer and thinks that this is the source of her tiredness.
Louise was not the only person to attribute feeling fatigued to long-term effects of cancer treatments. Ann, who had leukaemia and was treated with a bone marrow transplant, described how she still gets ‘very, very tired now’ even though she is seven years post-transplant. Diane feels that the main long-term tiredness that she experiences is due to radiotherapy treatment for her breast cancer which just ‘drained all of her energy’.
As well as fatigue, some people talked about weakness or having less ‘physical strength’ as a result of surgery or radiotherapy for their cancer. One woman who was five years post-diagnosis from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma described how she is ‘not the same person she used to be’ and has lost strength in her hands due to nerve damage from surgery. She finds it difficult not being able to lift things, and has to deal with continuing pain and numbness in her hand at night-time. A man who had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma thirteen years ago used to work as a surveyor and feels that the biggest side-effect he has had to manage is his ‘lack of strength’. 

Last reviewed October 2018.
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