Why having cancer causes extreme tiredness – and tips to help you manage fatigue and live better

When you’re being treated for cancer, it’s very common to suffer from extreme tiredness, known as cancer fatigue.

This guide looks at what you can do to help minimise the symptoms of cancer fatigue, including tips and advice from the Live Better With cancer community.


What causes cancer fatigue?

Fatigue is a common side effect of cancer and its treatment. In fact, up to 80% of people with cancer experience cancer fatigue.

Cancer fatigue can be caused by a number of things. The cancer itself can cause changes to your hormones and blood cells, which can make you very tired. Having cancer treatment, such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy can also cause fatigue.

Dealing with pain and the side effects of treatment can also make you extremely tired, as can the medications given as part of your treatment.

Finally, the stress and worry of having all those tests and treatments can make you feel physically and emotionally drained.

The good news is, for most people the symptoms will start to reduce once treatment has finished. In the meantime, there are some simple things you can do to help minimise your fatigue, boost your energy levels and improve your mood.

Managing cancer fatigue

When you have cancer fatigue, it can have a big impact on your life. You may not have enough energy to do the things you want to, or you may not feel like doing much at all. You might find that even when you’ve had a sleep, you don’t feel properly rested.

It’s important to manage your fatigue. Firstly, you should mention your symptoms to your medical team. They might want to test you for any physical problems such as a low blood cell count (anaemia). If your medications are making you feel sleepy, or keeping you awake, they may be able to adjust the time of day that you take them.

Once you have spoken to your medical team, there are lots of other steps you can take to help reduce the symptoms and help you to live better.

Setting small, achievable goals

Cancer fatigue can make you feel short on energy after doing quite minor tasks. However, it’s important to keep as active as possible.

Start by thinking about what you can do, and set yourself some small, easy goals. This could be anything from taking a short walk around the block, to inviting a friend over for a cup of coffee. Involving someone else can be helpful, as it will encourage you to carry on and will also stop you from feeling isolated.

Eating well

With cancer treatment, you may find that your appetite changes and you don’t feel like eating as often or as much. Some treatments, like chemotherapy and radiotherapy, can cause side effects like sickness, changes to your sense of taste, and mouth soreness. Or you may just not have the energy to cook a meal.

It’s important that your body has everything it needs to repair and recover. Not eating properly can lead to weight loss and can make your cancer fatigue worse, so it’s important to keep your energy levels up.

If you don’t feel like making or eating a full meal, try eating little and often. Have a supply of tasty snacks to hand, such as energy bars, for an instant boost when you do feel like something.

Replacements and supplements

Our Live Better With community members recommend meal replacements as a quick and easy alternative to cooking. If you’re worried about getting enough nutrients, you could opt for a weekly delivery of fruit and vegetables.

You might also want to take a vitamin and mineral supplement. You should always talk to your medical team before taking any supplements.

See the Live Better With Guide to Eating Well here.

Doing some gentle exercise

When you’re suffering from cancer fatigue, doing exercise may seem more difficult. However, some light  activity will help you to maintain muscle mass, boost your mood and make your body more naturally tired, promoting better sleep.

A short walk in the fresh air can help to boost body and mind. Exercise releases ‘happy’ chemicals in the brain (known as endorphins), which can make you feel better.

Many Live Better With community members also recommend yoga as a gentle and relaxing form of exercise.

For indoor exercise, there is a range of low-impact equipment available, such as foot pedal exercisers.

You could also try following an exercise programme that’s specially developed for cancer patients, such as Cancer Fitness by Anna Schwartz.

“Easy to follow and after a few weeks I am so much less tired than I used to be, it’s great to be able to do more with the kids.” Live Better With community member

See the Live Better With Guide to Doing Exercise here.

Getting into good sleeping habits

If you have cancer fatigue, you might feel like just pulling the duvet over your head and sleeping. Remember, it’s not the amount of sleep, but the quality of your sleep that’s most important. In fact, having too much sleep (oversleeping) can actually make your fatigue worse.

To get the best, most refreshing sleep you should try and stick to a routine by going to bed and getting up at a regular time.

Cancer treatment can make you feel more sleepy than normal during the day. Napping can offer a quick boost, but it isn’t long enough to go into a deep sleep, which is when your body heals itself and restores blood and hormone levels. Having a nap may also make you feel groggy afterwards, and can interfere with your sleep patterns.

To help, you should try limiting your naps to no more than an hour. Resting is very important, but instead of sleeping try doing relaxing things like listening to some music or a mindfulness CD, or having a nice soak in the bath.

See the Live Better With Guide to Having Difficulty Sleeping here.

Using relaxation techniques

Being treated for cancer can cause stress to both body and mind, and stress is known to contribute to cancer fatigue. Relaxation techniques, such as yoga and breathing exercises, can help with this.

“I used yoga, meditation and breathing exercises to help counter my stress and anxiety.” Live Better With community member

Mindfulness is another useful relaxation technique which can help you to de-stress and focus on the small things. The little book of mindfulness contains a range of helpful tips and advice.

Aromatherapy can also offer a natural way of relaxing, using calming essential oils. The Live Better With community recommends Badger Cheerful Mind balm to help ease your mind and lift your spirits.

Writing a diary

It can be useful to keep a diary to help manage your fatigue. You can record any activities you’ve done, how you felt before and after doing them, what you have eaten and when, and how long you have spent sleeping or resting.

Keeping a diary can help to identify how your energy levels change throughout the day or after certain activities, and what works best for you. It can also help to relieve anxiety, by offering a outlet for your thoughts and feelings.

“I write down my feelings, doodle, sketch and color. This all helps me keep my mind clear.” David, Live Better With community member

Sharing your diary with friends, family or healthcare professionals could help them to understand your symptoms and offer any additional support.

Keeping your brain exercised

During cancer treatment, it can be all too easy to neglect your brain, especially if you are feeling fatigued. Cancer fatigue can make it more difficult to concentrate on things.

It’s important to keep your brain active with some gentle activities. Reading, using adult colouring books,  brain training and crossword puzzles, can help to invigorate your mind.

Inviting a friend over for a chat can also help to keep you interested in other things and take your mind off your illness for a while.

Asking for help

Cancer fatigue can interfere significantly with normal life, and can be difficult to deal with. You may find that you can’t do the things you normally would, and your personal and social life have changed as a result. You may feel sad, down or irritable because of this, or because of the fatigue itself.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Friends and family members can offer help with practical things like doing the shopping or housework, or just being there for you.

If you don’t want to talk to a friend or family member, try speaking to your doctor or a professional counsellor. Support groups can also a good source of help and advice, from people who are going through a similar experience.

Share your tips

Have you experienced cancer fatigue? What made life better for you? We’d love to hear about your tips, as they could help other people like you. Share your tips with the Live Better With cancer community here.

Find more Live Better With Guides to coping with cancer symptoms and side effects here.