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Combating Cancer-Related Fatigue With Exercise

Cancer can be exhausting—literally. Fatigue is a common side effect. This sense of extreme tiredness can be debilitating and linger for months or even years after treatment ends. Fortunately, there are effective ways to fight fatigue associated with cancer treatment, including one that may seem counterintuitive: exercise.

Understanding cancer-related fatigue

Fatigue that comes from cancer or its treatment varies from person to person. And it’s different than feeling tired from a lack of sleep.

Cancer-related fatigue can feel like constant physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. It doesn’t improve with rest, and it interferes with daily life. Fatigue is the most commonly reported side effect of all cancers, said Jeannie Kozempel, PT, DPT, MS, Manager of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, cancer-related fatigue can impact your:

  • Mood and emotions
  • Daily activities
  • Job performance
  • Hobbies and recreation
  • Social relationships
  • Ability to cope with treatment
  • Hope for the future

These issues can make fatigue seem insurmountable. But that’s not the case.

“The most important thing about fatigue is that it is treatable,” Kozempel said.

Diagnosing cancer-related fatigue

The first step in addressing cancer-related fatigue is a proper diagnosis.

“You always have to rule out organic, treatable things, like infection, depression, or medication side effects” Kozempel said.

Once you and your doctor have determined that what you have is cancer-related fatigue, you can work together to develop a treatment plan. There’s no magic pill—addressing fatigue takes time, healthy habits, and other strategies.

Moving to fight fatigue

If you’re feeling really tired, the idea of exercising may seem overwhelming. But physical activity is one of the best ways to cope with cancer-related fatigue. It can actually increase your energy and improve your state of mind.

It’s always good to check with your doctor before exercising. This is particularly important if you’re still undergoing treatment and those treatments can affect your lungs or heart, or if you’re at risk for lung or heart disease. In addition, your ability to exercise will be affected by your type and stage of cancer, your cancer treatment, and your level of stamina, strength and general fitness.

“If you have questions about exercising, ask your doctor to refer you to a physical therapist,” Kozempel said. “We will look at your medical history and help you find a safe way to exercise.”

Setting realistic goals

It’s important to move your body every day, if you can. Again, it will help ease fatigue.

According to Kozempel, exercise guidelines for cancer survivors are the same as they are for someone without cancer: 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking.

As a physical therapist, Kozempel encourages people with cancer to monitor their exercise intensity using a zero-to-10 scale.

“Zero means sitting around doing nothing,” she explained. “Ten is working so hard you’re going to collapse. We want you around three or four—you’re getting a little bit breathless, but you’re doing OK.”

Keep in mind that you can break up your exercise into small bouts throughout the day.

“It doesn’t have to be all at once,” Kozempel said. “It can be 20 minutes here, 10 minutes there. Break that into whatever you can tolerate. Set a realistic goal. For instance, if you can walk around the block once, set a goal of going around twice by the end of the month. Set a goal, meet it, and then set another.”

Read more in this blog: Cancer Patients Benefit from Exercise in Multiple Ways