Saturday, 11 May 2019

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Fatigue

“Fatigue, we agreed, is not the same as being tired.”

In this week’s discussion we explored fatigue, a common and debilitating side-effect of treatments for primary and secondary breast cancer.  

Fatigue, we agreed, is not the same as being tired. It’s a relentless feeling of living in a barrel of treacle, typified by feelings of exhaustion and burnout - physical and mental. Fatigue tells us we are muddling through on empty, our resources depleted, our energy all used up. Sleep and rest does not replenish us. Fatigue may be sudden, constant, or come in waves. 

Coping with fatigue is difficult. Many of us find it hard to acknowledge that we can no longer do as much.  For some fatigue is mild, for others it’s severe. Fatigue hits some of us now and again and is a minor irritation. It can stop others from working, socialising and they feel constantly unwell under its weight.

Insomnia seems a common feature of fatigue. As we become overtired, we worry about not sleeping as we lie awake. We worry that we won’t be able to work, we worry that our families will see us as shirkers, we worry that friends will get fed up with us for turning down invitations or leaving the party early. 

Many of us are learning to pace ourselves. We plan fewer activities on a daily basis and schedule in times for rest. In a world where being busy is highly prized, it can be hard to slow down to our own pace. Working full time can mean me time, social time and family time is squeezed as it takes every ounce of our energy to hold down our jobs, and there’s nothing left for anything else. We don’t do as much as we used to, as much as we would like, leading to feelings of guilt and a loss of self-esteem. 

Many of us noticed that the fatigue caused by surgery, and/or radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy seems to lessen over time. But after active treatment has ended, menopausal symptoms can feed into our exhaustion, either from early or treatment-related menopause, or, from taking hormonal treatment. The effects can be long lasting. 

Those of us with secondary breast cancer, whose treatment is ongoing, often have a level of fatigue that is very debilitating and may be an continuous problem requiring specialist support.

Many of us have experienced the ‘boom and bust’ cycle where we feel great and do loads, only to crash afterwards and be forced to take time out. We suddenly feel totally wiped out and there’s nothing we can do except stop and rest.  

The spoon theory - there’s plenty of information on this on the internet - is useful, but although it helps us understand and validate our symptoms and gives us some language with which to articulate it for others, we still feel frustrated by the times when we just can’t push through, keep going, have a little nap and then feel fine again. 

Many of us described fatigue as a tiredness that is not relieved by a good night’s sleep. It can be a weariness of body but also a heaviness of mind. This, we wondered, may be because our anxiety and fear is using up the brain’s resources and our usual cognitive processes are impaired. This, coupled with the fear and vulnerability that accompanies a cancer diagnosis, decreases our ability to bounce back from low mood. Our brain is preoccupied with the mental trauma and cannot lend as big a hand to our physical recovery as we might like. Keeping our brains active, even when we are forced to rest, may be helpful here. 

Activities can help us to manage fatigue, besides adequate rest, include physical exercise and mental relaxation. Some of us can go to the gym or go for a run, others prefer a gentle stroll in nature or a yoga session. We like to find absorbing things to do to settle and calm our minds, such as reading or creative crafts. Eating healthily helps, and avoiding sugar and quick release carbohydrates which can lead to fluctuating blood sugar causing energy highs and lows. There are courses, books and apps to help us understand cycles of fatigue and this understanding can bring an awareness which can be helpful. 

Explaining fatigue to others who expect us to be ok now that our cancer is behind us - and for some of us, many years behind us - feels impossible and some of us have given up trying. We just smile, say we’re fine. We decline a night out because we know that if we go, we’ll feel awful, struggle to stay awake and maybe we won’t make it to work the next day because it will just be too much for us.

We find comfort in knowing that fatigue is a common experience and that many women suffer from it. This helps us to feel that we are not “weak” or “feeble” for needing to slow down.  

Exercise can help, but it needs to be gradually increased, especially for those with severe symptoms. Many of us who are fit and active still describe experiencing fatigue, and others make the effort to exercise, not to improve fatigue but because we know it is good for our health. Showing self -compassion and not beating ourselves up if we can’t exercise can help us to manage the gap between our expectations and our reality. We do our best. Here is where we share our true resilience. We know we are all different and there is no one right way to improve our wellbeing. 

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 Facebook. 

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