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Treatment Side Effects - Fatigue

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

Fatigue, a sense of extreme tiredness, weakness, or lack of energy, is a common side effect of many treatments for lung cancer. Resting or sleeping may not improve fatigue, and fatigue has a great impact on quality of life, compromising physical functioning and the ability to do everyday activities.1

How common is cancer-related fatigue?

Fatigue is experienced by virtually all patients who undergo treatment for cancer: up to 90 percent of patients treated with radiation therapy and up to 80 percent of patients treated with chemotherapy report experiencing fatigue.

In lung cancer specifically, reports vary from 37 percent to 78 percent of patients undergoing treatment who experience fatigue, and lung cancer is linked to fatigue lasting more than 6 months’ duration. Fatigue can also continue for months or years after treatment is concluded.2

Fatigue for lung cancer patients

Many of the treatments used in lung cancer can cause fatigue as a side effect, such as chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy. The cancer itself may also create fatigue, as the cancer cells consume some of the body’s nutrients. Lung cancer is also associated with high levels of depression, a serious mood disorder that can affect how a person feels, thinks, and handles daily activities. Depression is also linked with fatigue.3-5

Some of the common symptoms experienced by patients with lung cancer can also raise the risk of developing fatigue. Pain, in particular, can sap the body’s energy, and many pain medications may cause fatigue as a side effect. Other symptoms that can add to fatigue are nausea and insomnia.3

Managing fatigue

There are few treatments available that directly relieve fatigue, however, treating the cause of the fatigue can help. If a patient is experiencing fatigue due to anemia, lowered red blood cell counts that are a common side effect of chemotherapy, medications to boost red blood cells or a blood transfusion can be given. Treating possible symptoms such as pain, depression, and managing other side effects of chemotherapy like nausea and vomiting can also have a beneficial effect on fatigue.3

While fatigue impacts a person’s physical functioning, studies have shown that physical activity is correlated with a potential 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. Patients with fatigue are encouraged to engage in regular activity to reduce the severity of their fatigue.6

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 percent improvement in fatigue, and the acupressure group experienced a 19 percent improvement, compared to the control group (did not receive treatment with acupuncture or acupressure), which only saw a 0.6 percent improvement.7,8

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