If you have experienced fatigue on your cancer journey, then you are not alone. Almost ALL cancer patients (between 80-100%) report having fatigue and it is the most common side effect during treatment. There are countless reasons for cancer-related fatigue, from the cancer itself to it’s treatment, low blood counts or electrolytes, changes in hormone levels, surgical recovery, pain, insomnia, stress, and more. Basically, cancer makes the body work A LOT harder, and that can result in some pretty significant fatigue unlike anything you had experienced before.
Fatigue can affect every aspect of your life and suddenly basic activities like getting dressed, cleaning, and eating may seem daunting. But there is some good news! There are many strategies you can try to improve your energy and fight off dreaded fatigue:
- EAT EAT EAT! Food fuels our bodies, so it’s not surprising that eating often throughout the day can help with fatigue. A good goal is to eat something (even something small) every 2-3 hours and to make sure you are getting enough calories to prevent weight loss. If you need to, set a timer to remind yourself it’s time to eat. If you’re too tired to cook, keep easy snacks nearby, such as trail mix, Greek yogurt, granola bars, whole grain crackers with cheese, or pretzels with hummus or peanut butter. If you’re in bed much of the day, keep snacks at your bedside for easy access. Remember, there will be good days and bad days. Try to take advantage of good days to make freezer meals, grocery shop, or plan your meals.
- Get the most out of every bite: When your energy is low, choosing foods wisely is especially important. A great rule of thumb is that every meal should have protein (like eggs, yogurt, poultry, fish, or legumes), healthy fats (like avocado, olive oil, and nuts), and fiber-rich carbohydrates (like whole grain bread, pasta, brown rice, quinoa, and beans). Some simple examples of this would be whole grain toast with mashed avocado and a hard boiled egg, a waffle with nut butter and sliced banana, a baked potato with chopped broccoli and cheese or sour cream, Greek yogurt with berries and nuts, or a good old PB&J sandwich. Adding calorie boosters, such as olive oil and salad dressings, is another way to make the most out of the foods you are already eating. If chewing food is tiring, choose soft foods that are easy to chew and swallow like oatmeal, creamy soups, and well cooked beans.
- Give energy to get energy: Staying as active as possible (in a safe way) can actually give your more energy and will also help stimulate your appetite to help you fuel. Start with 10 minutes of low intensity movement that you enjoy (like walking or yoga) and increase gradually. Take care not to overdo it or push too hard, as this can make fatigue worse and set you back. Always listen to your body and rest when you need it. And of course, discuss any new exercise programs with your healthcare team first!
- Up your fluid intake. It is easy to become dehydrated when fatigue is at its worst and even going to refill your water bottle feels like running a marathon. Drinking plenty of hydrating fluids, like water, seltzer, and herbal tea, can help improve your energy levels. Beverages can also be a way to sneak in some extra calories (aka energy!), so including 100% fruit juice, electrolyte drinks, milk, and shakes can be a good strategy as well. Aim to drink fluids in between meals so you do not fill up on fluids during your meals.
- Ask for help. Family and friends often want to help, so don’t be afraid to take advantage of that! Bringing a meal or running an errand can take some stress off you when you are feeling most fatigued. Trying grocery or meal delivery services can be a huge help as well. You should also speak to your medical team about other factors that may be worsening fatigue including pain, anemia, insomnia, and other conditions.
While fatigue can be incredibly overwhelming, always remember to take it one day at a time. Allow yourself to rest and recover when you need it, and empower yourself with strategies like these to help manage your symptoms as much as you can.