Friday, 21 December 2018

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Cancer Related Fatigue

“Sometimes fatigue hits us like a brick wall, without warning, meaning we just have to stop and rest.”

Cancer related fatigue is a well documented side effect of treatment. What's not so commonly known, except by those struggling with it, is that fatigue can continue to affect us for many years. It also appears to be less commonly known that post cancer fatigue can severely affect us, as many of us described a lack of understanding from our family and friends. For some of us, this lack of recognition was just as hard as the fatigue itself so it was a massive relief to share and to know we are not alone. 

We are all women diagnosed with primary or secondary breast cancer. For women living with secondary breast cancer, ongoing treatments can lead to fatigue becoming a permanent fixture. However, this can be true for those of us living with primary breast cancer or lymphodema too. Many of us spoke about our shock at finding that we were exhausted, perhaps exactly at the time we, and those around us, might be expecting our normal energy levels to return as our active treatment is complete. 

Fatigue may be debilitating to the extent that we can no longer hold down full-time jobs, and some of us have to give up work all together.  Some do this happily and find a more manageable pace of life. Others are frustrated that they can't work, and for many, work is part of our self-esteem and losing it is a huge blow. 

At the other end of the spectrum many women continue to live full lives which from the outside appear normal. Our struggle against fatigue becomes a daily battle requiring a delicate balancing act. For some, this means we give all our energy to our work, leaving nothing for family and ourselves. For others this means a pattern of boom and crash, where periods of activity are followed by a need to rest and recover. This may be on a daily basis or in chunks. 

Fatigue is not just physical, it also tires us mentally and cognitively. The brain takes the energy it needs to get by, and this may leave it depleted, which in turn leads to mental exhaustion. When we are exhausted we may feel low, possibly depressed, and this becomes a vicious circle fuelling the fatigue.

Exercise was widely reported as being helpful in combating fatigue, with everything from swimming to running to walking to dancing to yoga to aqua aerobics to martial arts proving useful. Moving our bodies in a way which is enjoyable can be beneficial, and research into this field substantiates our experiences. Fatigue invites us to rest, but alongside sensible exercise. However, exercise is not a quick fix for many of us, and needs to be graded and gradual to avoid a boom and bust, or further episodes of illness. If exercise can be supervised to ensure levels are controlled and to reduce the risk of overdoing the activity, it seems more effective. Some of us don't exercise formally but incorporate physical activity into our routine by walking everywhere and others have active jobs. 

Some of us spoke of worsening fatigue after the end of treatment, with common colds or stress causing us to flounder.  A few of us have extreme fatigue with burning nerve and muscle pain. It is tempting to be very active on days when we feel good, but pacing ourselves is so important in order to avoid overdoing things on good days and subsequently crashing. Sometimes fatigue hits us like a brick wall, without warning, meaning we just have to stop and rest. 

Fatigue and sleep are awkward bedfellows, with each affecting the other adversely. We spoke about our problems sleeping, which may have many causes, leading to extreme daytime tiredness. The one thing we crave is sleep, and it eludes us. 

Counselling has been a help for some of us, helping us to devise coping strategies. Stopping to listen to our bodies, and pausing to breathe deeply, are useful too. Acupuncture and other complimentary therapies are helpful for some. Fatigue management clinics exist in some areas but support is not widely available. Deep breathing, relaxation, meditation are all worth trying to improve our sleep. An app called 'Untire' was recommended as a useful.

A key theme is that other people don't understand our fatigue and expect us to be back to normal. It's hard to explain and people to respond by telling us that they are exhausted too! All we can do is try to be responsive to our needs and kind to ourselves, doing what we need to do even when those around us are not empathetic. 

If you are a woman living in the UK with a breast cancer diagnosis and you would like to join our private group please send us a private message via the public Facebook page.

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