It’s easy to see how the physical and mental toll that breast cancer treatment involves can lead to fatigue, but many may not realize how common of a symptom fatigue really is. A 2020 study uncovered that between 62% and 85% of people undergoing cancer treatment report experiencing cancer-related fatigue. Other recent research also found that women with breast cancer experience the most fatigue symptoms in the first six months following their diagnosis (this is typically when treatment is most intense). However, symptoms of fatigue may persist for many months after treatment comes to an end.
Let’s take a closer look at what fatigue is, what causes fatigue symptoms during breast cancer treatment, and what techniques can help combat these symptoms.
What is Fatigue?
The term fatigue doesn’t just mean feeling tired. When someone is experiencing fatigue they won’t feel relief from these symptoms even if they get plenty of rest and sleep. Because of this, fighting fatigue can deeply impact a patient’s emotional and physical health.
Those going through breast cancer treatments like hormonal therapies and chemotherapy can experience inflammation in the body which can contribute to feeling fatigued. Not to mention, other side effects like vomiting can lead to feelings of fatigue.
Signs of fatigue include:
- Lack of energy
- Needing to sleep more
- Being tired after sleeping
- Lack of desire
- Inability to perform normal daily activities
- Struggle with concentrating
- Difficulty finding words
How to Combat Fatigue
Even though the cancer treatment may be causing or contributing to the fatigue, it’s important to remember to stick to your prescribed treatment plan (doing so can improve your overall treatment outcome). You can work with your care team to come up with a plan for fighting your fatigue and may want to consider incorporating some of the following techniques.
1. Find Support
Anxiety and stress contribute to fatigue and in turn fatigue can increase stress and anxiety levels. To fight this vicious cycle, it can help to build a support system of family, friends, and a care team. Finding additional community support can also help, as interacting with those sharing similar experiences can provide a valuable form of support.
If you’re looking for a support group, check out these resources:
- Breast cancer.org community
- American Cancer Society’s support and resources
- CancerCare.org support groups
You may also find support groups through your hospital, local community centers, libraries, or places of worship. Many support groups are also active on Facebook and you can find one that may support your specific diagnosis by doing a Facebook search for “breast cancer”.
2. Try Acupuncture
Talk to your doctor about whether or not acupuncture is something you can safely pursue during treatment. Research has found that acupuncture can help with cancer-related symptoms such as fatigue—as well as anxiety, nausea, pain, and sleep disturbances.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medicinal technique that involves using small needles to stimulate nerves of the skin which helps influence the body. Some insurance policies cover acupuncture sessions, so it’s worth asking if your care team has a referral for a certified acupuncturist near you.
3. Embrace Mindfulness
Mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga can help relieve stress and anxiety by directing your focus to the present moment. A 2021 study even found that breast cancer patients who participated in mindfulness-based stress reduction interventions reported reductions in fatigue, as well as short-term reductions in stress and depression.
New to meditating? Try a free app like Headspace for short and simple guided meditations. You can also sign up for in-person yoga classes or practice at home by watching online video classes to embrace gentle exercise and mindfulness.
4. Exercise Regularly
When you’re feeling stressed and tired, no one wants to hear that exercise may be the solution they’re looking for. But when it comes to overcoming feelings of fatigue, moving may very well make a huge impact. There is moderate scientific evidence that found that physical activity following a breast cancer diagnosis lowers risk of breast cancer death and there is strong scientific evidence that physical activity after a breast cancer diagnosis can improve fatigue as well as reduce anxiety and reduce depressive symptoms.
A 2017 study found that regular aerobic exercise improves cancer-related fatigue. While exercising may feel counterintuitive when feeling fatigued, getting physical can actually help improve energy levels and mood in one fell swoop. Don’t rush to the gym just yet—the American Cancer Society recommends starting slow and building up your activity if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. They suggest making small efforts and building on them until you can manage 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activities on a weekly basis.
Not sure how to get started? The American College of Sports Medicine can point you in the right direction of an exercise specialist trained to work with cancer patients. In some cases, your health insurance might even help pay for these treatments so it’s worth checking in with your insurance provider to see what your options are.
In the meantime, just give a walk around the block or playing fetch with your dog a go to start incorporating small amounts of exercise into your daily routine. The following week you can try to increase that amount and soon you’ll begin to make progress—similar to how people build on physical training for major exercise events like a 5k.
5. Pace Yourself
There’s no need to push through feelings of fatigue. Instead, try breaking up large overwhelming tasks into smaller tasks. Spreading out your efforts can make it possible to pace yourself and keep energy levels up throughout the day.
6. Eat a Balanced Diet
There is no single recommended dietary plan for patients with breast cancer, but in general eating a well rounded diet full of whole, nutrient-dense foods can help. Try to eat a balance of whole grains, legumes, lean protein sources, fruits, and vegetables. You’ll also want to stay hydrated by drinking a lot of water. It’s important to note that the goal here is not to cut calories out of your diet. You may even want to add in calorie rich whole foods like avocado to make sure you’re getting enough calories each day when you may not feel like eating much due to nausea, medication side effects, or anxiety.
There are oncology dietitians who specialize in creating meal plans for cancer patients, so ask if your care team can connect you to someone who can help.
Managing Other Side Effects
It’s worth noting that while fatigue can be a direct side effect of cancer treatment, other side effects such as nausea (which makes it hard to eat enough to feel energized) can also contribute to feelings of fatigue.
It’s important to work with your care team to address the causes of any fatigue you’re feeling. For example, if you’re experiencing anemia (which is a common side effect of chemotherapy), this can lead to feelings of fatigue. Having a plan in place to address your anemia can help address fatigue at the same time.
Again—a healthy diet is key here. Some foods and drinks like ginger and peppermint can help fight feelings of nausea.
It’s very common to experience feelings of fatigue before, during, and after breast cancer treatment. Because feelings of fatigue are so commonplace it may seem like something patients have to accept, but it’s not. Talk to your doctor and care team about what you can do to help alleviate some or all of your symptoms.
Why Tracking Symptoms Matter
While you can track your symptoms in a simple paper notebook, we advise using the Outcomes4Me symptom tracker to make it easy to keep track of when symptoms occur, to stay organized, and to have a thorough log of symptoms to share with your doctor.
Five different studies found that patient-reported symptom surveillance led to significantly improved survival compared with usual care. This occurred mainly through better symptom control, early detection of tumor recurrence, and extended chemotherapy use.
With our mobile app symptom tracker, you can
- Add a photo and/or note to any symptom recorded
- Visualize symptoms on a graph to find trends in how the patient is feeling
- Export a report on all symptoms over the last few months and share it with a doctor
Try it today by downloading the Outcomes4Me mobile app!