Symptoms - Fatigue

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2017.

Fatigue is one of the most common and debilitating symptoms experienced by people with lung cancer. It is characterized by tiredness, weakness, and lack of energy. In addition, rest or sleep does not offer relief. Fatigue can occur both as a consequence of lung cancer and as a side effect of treatment.

Fatigue experienced by lung cancer patients, in and out of treatment

In some people, fatigue is an early symptom of the presence of lung cancer. It is experienced by nearly all patients who undergo treatment for cancer. Up to 90% of patients treated with radiation therapy and up to 80% of patients treated with chemotherapy report experiencing fatigue.

Reports show that between 37% to 78% of lung cancer patients undergoing treatment experience fatigue. Lung cancer is also linked to fatigue lasting more than six months. It might continue for months - or years - after a patient's treatment is finished.1

How is quality of life impacted by fatigue?

Fatigue has been identified as having a more significant impact on the quality of life among cancer patients. It is more significant than the impact of pain, depression, or nausea.

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Considering physical functioning and the ability to perform activities of daily living, fatigue can impact a lung cancer patient's ability to work, and can create a significant financial burden.

Being linked with increased levels of depression, anxiety, and mood disturbance in people with lung cancer, fatigue can further impact someone's ability to participate in day-to-day life. These symptoms may even have a negative impact on the effectiveness of a patient's treatment for lung cancer.1

Impact on caregivers

The stress that comes from a patient's fatigue may increase the burden on caregivers and family members, who often must work fewer hours to provide care and must pick up more of the daily household chores.1

How is fatigue assessed in patients with lung cancer?

There are many standards for assessing fatigue. A patient experiencing fatigue can best describe its impact on their life as a subjective experience to their doctor or care provider.

Researchers have also developed several checklists and scales that doctors use to assess fatigue. Patients may be asked to rate the severity of their fatigue (from mild to severe) and how it impacts their daily functions.2

Managing fatigue

Few treatments are available that directly alleviate fatigue, making it more challenging to treat than pain.

Physical activity as a possible remedy

While experiencing fatigue impacts how someone functions physically, studies show that physical activity is correlated with a reduction in its severity. Physical activity is typically well-tolerated during and after cancer therapy and can also improve emotional well-being and overall quality of life.3

Alternative fatigue management

In a randomized trial of cancer patients who were experiencing fatigue from chemotherapy, acupuncture and acupressure were found to improve fatigue levels significantly.

Acupuncture is the use of thin needles inserted through the skin at strategic points on the body. It is a critical component of traditional Chinese medicine.

Acupressure targets those same points, using gentle to firm finger pressure rather than the needles used in acupuncture. In the study, the acupuncture group experienced a 36% improvement in fatigue, and the acupressure group experienced a 19% improvement, compared to the control group (who did not receive treatment with acupuncture or acupressure), which only saw a 0.6% improvement.4,5

Other symptoms of lung cancer

In addition to fatigue, other common symptoms of lung cancer include: