What is cancer fatigue?

Fatigue means feeling very tired, exhausted and lacking energy. It can be a symptom of the cancer itself or a side effect of treatment.

Fatigue is very common in people with cancer. It can be the most troubling symptom. Many people say it's the most disruptive side effect of all.

Cancer related fatigue can affect you physically, emotionally and mentally. How long it lasts, the degree of severity and how often you might have it is different from person to person.

Symptoms of fatigue

Cancer related fatigue symptoms are very general and other things can cause them too.

Tell your doctor or nurse about any new or unusual symptoms you might have. They can help try to work out the cause and how to manage them.

Here is a list of some symptoms you might have if you have cancer related fatigue:

  • lack of energy – you may just want to stay in bed all day
  • feeling you just cannot be bothered to do much
  • sleeping problems such as unable to sleep or disturbed sleep
  • finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • feeling anxious, sad or depressed
  • pain in your muscles – you may find it hard to climb stairs or walk short distances
  • being breathless after doing small tasks, like having a shower or making your bed
  • finding it hard to concentrate, even just watching TV or talking to a good friend
  • finding it hard to think clearly or make decisions easily
  • loss of interest in doing things you usually enjoy
  • negative feelings about yourself and others

How long can fatigue last?

Cancer related fatigue is different from tiredness which is usually short term and you feel better after you stop, sleep or rest. Cancer fatigue doesn’t usually go away with sleep or rest. It can be severe and last a long time.

Fatigue can last for different amounts of time depending on what’s causing it. Most people start to feel better after treatment finishes. But it can take several weeks or months before you feel like your old self. In some people it may take a lot longer.

How fatigue can affect your daily life

Fatigue can be very frustrating. You and your relatives might underestimate how much it can affect daily life.

Everyday life can be hard work and you might not have the energy to cook, clean, bathe or go shopping. You might not even feel up to a chat. Things that you used to find second nature or easy are now a task and can be hard work.

You and your doctor can sometimes overlook fatigue, especially if you have other side effects. It’s important to tell your doctor or nurse about how you’re coping day to day and if you are struggling.

Fatigue can affect the way you feel about yourself and your relationships with other people. You can feel very down and not want to go out or be with people which can be hard for them to understand.

You might have to stop working or cut down your hours. This can affect how much money you have.

You might feel like fatigue is a constant reminder of your cancer and this can be hard to accept.

You might worry that because you feel so tired all the time your cancer could be getting worse. But it is more likely to be a side effect of treatment, or due to the fact that cancer can cause fatigue.

Fatigue is very real and can have a big impact on your life. Let your doctor or nurse know if you think you have symptoms of fatigue. There are ways of managing it and your medical team will try to help you.

Managing cancer fatigue

There are some things you can do to help with fatigue. Speak with your doctor or specialist nurse if you are feeling very tired. They can help you to manage it and might give you treatment.  

  • International Psychometric Validation of an EORTC Quality of Life Module Measuring Cancer Related Fatigue (EORTC QLQ-FA12)
    J Weis and others
    Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2017. Volume 109, Issue 5

  • Cancer-related fatigue: Mechanisms, risk factors, and treatment
    J E Bower
    Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology, 2014. Volume 11, Issue 10, Pages 597 - 609

  • Tiredness / fatigue in adults
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2015.

  • Cancer Survivorships Sourcebook (2nd Edition)
    K Jones
    Omnigraphics, 2017

  • Cancer-related fatigue treatment: An overview
    H Mohandas and others
    Journal of Cancer Research and Therapeutics, 2017. Volume 13. Issue 6, Pages 916 - 929

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

Last reviewed: 
02 Jan 2020

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