How to Beat Fatigue in Your Breast Cancer Fight
During breast cancer treatment, it’s common to wrestle with fatigue. Get some advice from a physical therapist who works with breast cancer patients each day.
By Diane Galvin, PT
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
“I know I’m supposed to exercise, but I’m just too tired.” This is the comment I hear from so many of my breast cancer patients.
I am a physical therapist who sees women after they have had a mastectomy, reconstruction, chemotherapy, radiation — or any combination of those treatments. What is the most common complaint? Fatigue. Not just tiredness, we’re talking fatigue. Waking up tired. Can’t stay upright tired. Sound familiar?
Up to 90% of breast cancer patients report some degree of fatigue. It’s natural to feel fatigue with the hard work your body is doing to heal itself. Fatigue can have physical causes, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. It can also have emotional causes, such as stress and worry.
But whatever the reason, exercise is a big part of the cure.
Are you asking: “How can exercise give me more energy? I can barely go to the grocery store!” I admit that it seems counterintuitive. But if you think about what exercise does to the body, it might make more sense.
Exercise in any form brings oxygen to your muscles. This is true whether exercise is aerobic (causing increased heart rate for prolonged period of time), resistive (involving weight lifting) or yoga (involving stretching and breathing).
All these exercise types also take away waste products. They bring fresh oxygen, fresh nutrients! Circulation is truly the key to healthy tissues.
One of the first questions I ask patients is, “What do you like to do? What do you do for fun?”
Hopefully, it involves something active, such as walking the dog. The best idea of all? Find a buddy (or three) to exercise with. To all of your friends and family who say: “What can I do to help you?” Tell them, “Come make me walk. Keep me company while I walk.” Every day, a different person can be your buddy. It will be good for you and whoever is walking with you!
I’d love to tell you that fatigue will disappear as quickly as it came on. It does not. But it will dissipate with time.
It’s also not the same for everyone — and it’s hard to quantify, to judge how bad it is. Fatigue isn’t like a blood test that offers measurable data points. But it’s real. It’s a formidable challenge in the cancer fight, but you’re not alone.
So just get going, and take baby steps. Walk or exercise for five minutes, seven minutes or 10 minutes, whatever you can do. Keep building a routine, perhaps going from once a day to twice a day. Judge how you feel today. Judge how you feel in a month. Keep going.