11 Ways to Curb Chemo Fatigue

By Susan Amoruso Jara
Reviewed by Lillie D. Shockney, RN, BS, MAS

Imagine going to work, doing errands and still having enough energy for something you actually want to do. This might seem like the impossible dream if you’re undergoing chemotherapy. In fact, up to 98% of people who are treated for cancer report energy-sapping fatigue, which can leave you with barely enough pep to lift a fork or brush your teeth.

The emotional distress, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, anemia and hormonal changes associated with chemotherapy can steal your get-up-and-go. Fatigue often peaks within a few days of chemotherapy and then improves until the next treatment, when the pattern begins again.

The good news: You can get your oomph back by experimenting with a few simple energy-boosters. Talk with your healthcare provider about the source of your fatigue, and try one of these tips to start feeling like yourself in no time:

Have a good breakfast. Of course this is easier said than done when challenges like appetite loss and nausea make it hard to eat. Yet when you’re undergoing chemo, your appetite is often heartiest in the morning, so make this meal count with a combination of protein, fat and fiber. Go for some fruit with cottage cheese. If you prefer savory foods, try turkey bacon, chicken or even beef. The bottom line: Take advantage of those times when you feel hungry by giving your body power foods. Also consider asking your oncologist if you should take any supplements.

Start moving. It may sound counterintuitive, but a study published in BMJ (British Medical Journal) found that participating in aerobic exercise and strength training helps amp up the energy of chemo patients. A bonus: It may boost your mood. Ask your healthcare provider what exercises are right for you.

Book a massage. People undergoing chemotherapy feel more energetic after a 15-minute rubdown, according to research from the National Cancer Institute. Many spas offer discounts for people with cancer. Angie’s Spa (no-follow link angiesspa.org) provides free sessions for people undergoing chemo at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, Northridge Hospital Medical Center in California, Hartford Hospital in Connecticut and Southampton Hospital in New York. Many other area hospitals offer complimentary massages for cancer patients, so ask your oncologist or medical center.

Don’t write off extreme fatigue as normal. Sure, some tiredness is to be expected when you’re undergoing chemo. But if you feel dizzy, lightheaded and short of breath in addition to being extremely fatigued, tell your doctor. Chemo can lower levels of iron-rich red blood cells, causing anemia. Treating anemia can boost your energy levels.

Stay social with social media. All those phone calls can wear a person out. Instead, consider setting up a CaringBridge site (caringbridge.org), which makes it easy to keep family and friends up to date on your treatment and how you’re feeling.

Be ready to make specific requests. When people offer their assistance, designate special tasks: Ask a friend to go grocery shopping for you. Or ask your neighbor can babysit your children while you’re at a chemo appointment. Most people sincerely want to help but aren’t sure what to do. Giving them a particular task allows them to feel good about their contribution.

Give guilt the heave-ho. Feel like you’re imposing? Instead, think about how great you felt the last time you did a good deed. Folks love that “helpers’ high,” and by asking for an assist, you’re giving them a feel-good fix.

Write it and forget it. Journaling is a great way to release your emotions, especially stress and anxiety, which are often linked to fatigue. It can even help people with cancer alter their feelings and thinking about the disease, according to a Georgetown University study. Try it: Grab a pen and a piece of paper, and write down every thought, feeling, sight and smell you experienced during chemotherapy. Or start a blog. Free blogging websites, such as wordpress.com or blogspot.com, make it easy.

Pace yourself. Cut an activity short while you still feel fine—say, after 20 minutes or so. Take a break, and if you feel okay later, resume what you were doing; pacing yourself will help keep energy levels high.

Get in a good guffaw. Feeling worn out? Watch a comedy, or phone a funny friend. Hearty laughter is a great energy booster because it releases mood-lifting endorphins that help you overcome tiring chemo-induced stress and depression.

Take an afternoon snooze. Next time you feel fatigued, try squeezing in a 20- to 30-minute midday nap. Although this won’t compensate for poor-quality nighttime sleep, it can help you rejuvenate for the day ahead.

Published March 2014

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