Fatigue, cancer and “coping”

I am a cell biologist, so I have no great knowledge of psychology. However, several blog posts and essays have recently caught my attention.  Many people with cancer experience fatigue, which is tiredness that doesn’t go away even when you rest.


Fatigue can be caused by lots of different things:

  1. drugs can cause fatigue as a side effect,
  2. a tumour or cancer treatment might alter your normal biology which may make you feel tired (e.g. you may become anemic because your iron levels are low).
  3. Depression and fatigue are linked, depression can make you feel fatigued and fatigue can make you feel depressed.

One thing that I hadn’t considered is that fatigue can be caused by “coping”, just having to live your life while you have cancer takes an immense amount of effort and this effort in itself can be exhausting. This is discussed in more detail on the Healthskills website in a post called “I’m so tired of coping“. The website is aimed at health professionals, but if you are interested in the subject it is well worth a read. The basic idea is that “self regulation”- how you think about your own thoughts, feelings and behaviours and how you alter these thoughts, feelings and behaviours is a difficult thing to do and takes a lot of energy.

The idea that getting used to the idea you have cancer needs effort, might explain why people find it hard to read and remember stuff and think logically when they have just been diagnosed with cancer. Ironically this is precisely the time you need to learn lots of new things and make difficult decisions.  This argument also applies if you are living with chronic pain or side effects from treatment, adjusting to a “new normal” takes effort and can make it hard to cope.

The good news is that you can improve your ways of coping, you can learn more about pacing yourself, setting goals and priorities.  You can learn how to respond to your emotions and you can become better at negotiating with other people and letting them know how you feel. To learn more read “Self regulation, what it is and what to do“.

It’s all very well reading about these things, but what can you do to help yourself if you are suffering from fatigue?

  1. Consider joining a support group, a real one or online (in Aberdeen contact CLAN or the Pain Association Scotland)
  2. Learn more about courses for managing pain or disease (e.g. challenging pain)
  3. Learn more about “Mindfulness” (Macmillan ran a course in Aberdeen in 2014)

Just knowing that living with cancer can be tiring is helpful. People often worry that tiredness is a sign that their disease is “getting worse” or they are “not coping”. Often this is not true. It is always worth speaking to your GP or nurse to see what can be done to help with fatigue, don’t just “put up with it” it might be something that can be fixed and if not they might have some suggestions that you haven’t tried.

Do you know of any other resources that help you cope with cancer fatigue?  If so please leave a comment below. Thanks.

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