Coping With Fatigue From Metastatic Breast Cancer

Learn why cancer-related fatigue occurs and what you might be able to do about it.

Fatigue is one of the most commonly reported symptoms among patients with breast cancer, including metastatic breast cancer (MBC). The majority of patients with breast cancer seem to experience fatigue at some point, and fatigue is especially common among patients undergoing chemotherapy.

What is fatigue?

Weary, tired, unmotivated, apathetic, drowsy, having little or no energy and mentally exhausted are all ways that someone may feel when they are experiencing fatigue. People experience fatigue for many different reasons, and it can be a normal reaction to things like physical exertion, lack of sleep and stress.

Cancer-related fatigue is different than normal fatigue. It tends to come on faster and be more draining, it tends to be more intense and last longer, and it may significantly interfere with a person’s daily activities and quality of life.

What causes cancer-related fatigue?

There are a number of factors, both physical and psychological, that can contribute to cancer-related fatigue in patients with MBC.

  • Fatigue is often listed as a symptom during the initial diagnosis of breast cancer. This may be caused by an imbalance of hormones resulting from the cancer, and/or an interruption of normal biologic functions caused by the presence of cancer in the body.
  • Fatigue is a commonly reported side effect for patients undergoing cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy and biologic therapy, as well as patients who have undergone surgery or transplantation as part of their cancer treatment. While necessary, these treatments take a physical toll on the body, and can be mentally exhausting.
  • Nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, nutritional deficiency and anemia are all possible side effects of cancer treatments, and can contribute to fatigue.
  • Fatigue can also be the result of being in pain; pain is another symptom associated with MBC, particularly breast cancer that has spread to the bones and liver.
  • Fatigue is also a known side effect for certain medications used to manage pain in patients with MBC and other types of cancer.

There are also the emotional and psychological factors that contribute to fatigue. Being diagnosed and undergoing treatment for MBC often has a profound emotional impact, and many patients report anxiety, depression and sleep disturbances, which can be both symptoms of fatigue as well as contributing factors.

Coping with fatigue

Like any other symptom or side effect, fatigue should be discussed with your healthcare provider, who can help you identify and address the underlying cause of your fatigue. Be prepared to discuss symptoms of fatigue, day-to-day habits, sleep and how you are feeling emotionally as well as physically.

There are also steps you can take on your own to help reduce fatigue. This can include modifying your schedule to allow adequate time to rest, being willing to ask others for help when you need it, focusing on nutrition and staying active. Exercise has numerous benefits, both physical and emotional, for people with cancer. If you’re new to exercise or unsure about what form of exercise would benefit you, talk to your healthcare provider for some guidelines on staying active.

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