Symptoms - Fatigue

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2017. | Last updated: May 2022

Fatigue is one of the most common and debilitating symptoms experienced by people living with cancer. Fatigue is characterized by feelings of tiredness, weakness, and lack of energy. Rest or sleep does not relieve fatigue, and fatigue can occur both as a consequence of lung cancer and as a side effect of lung cancer 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. In lung cancer specifically, reports vary from 37% to 78% of patients undergoing treatment who experience fatigue, and lung cancer is linked to fatigue lasting more than 6 months. Fatigue can also continue for months or years after treatment is concluded.1

Fatigue and Quality of life

Fatigue has been identified as having a greater impact on quality of life among cancer patients than pain, depression, or nausea. Fatigue compromises physical functioning and the ability to perform activities of daily living, which can impact an individual’s ability to work and create a significant financial burden. The stress of fatigue in the patient also increases the burden for caregivers and family members, who often work fewer hours to provide care and must pick up more of the daily household chores.1

Fatigue is linked with increased levels of depression, anxiety, and mood disturbance in people with cancer. These psychological symptoms can further impact a person’s ability to participate in day-to-day life and may have a negative impact on the effectiveness of treatment.1

Assessing fatigue

There is no single standard for assessing fatigue. As a subjective experience, like the symptom of pain, the person experiencing fatigue can best describe the impact it is having on their life. Researchers have developed several checklists and scales to assess fatigue, for example, asking patients to rate the severity of their fatigue (from mild to severe) and the impact it is having on various daily functions.2

Managing fatigue

There are currently few treatments available that directly alleviate fatigue, making it more difficult to treat than pain. While fatigue impacts a person’s physical functioning, studies have shown that physical activity is correlated with a reduction in the severity of fatigue. Physical activity is also well-tolerated during and after cancer therapy and can improve emotional well-being and overall quality of life in people with lung cancer.3

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

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

Acupressure targets those same strategic points, using gentle to firm finger pressure on these points 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 (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:

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