Have you ever been too tired to walk up your stairs, eat, or even go to the toilet? Welcome to the life of individuals with cancer related fatigue.
Fatigue is one of the most common and debilitating side effects of cancer treatments that presents itself before, during, and after treatment. A 2007 study found that 80-90% of people undergoing radiotherapy and chemotherapy reported experiencing incapacitating fatigue. Of those, approximately 91% felt they could not lead a normal life, participate in social activities or perform simple intellectual tasks. 75% had to change employment status and 65% needed their caregivers to take at least one day off per month. Worse still, many of these people can suffer similar symptoms long after the treatment has ceased.
What is cancer related fatigue?
Cancer related fatigue is unlike anything the apparently healthy individual has usually ever felt. The sense of utter exhaustion that you feel is disproportionate to the amount of effort produced. For a once fit individual, that can mean that a walk to the letter box produces the fatigue levels that are only imagined after completing an Ironman event (1 x 3km swim, 1 x 180km bike ride topped off with a marathon). The most disconcerting thing about cancer related fatigue is that rest or sleep does not always help alleviate symptoms. On top of that, because the causes are not well understood, treatment is not always straight forward.
If that is that case, shouldn’t I rest rather than exercise?
Well this is where it gets interesting! Research has now shown that exercise should be used as part of a patient’s oncology treatment schedule. Not surprisingly, results show an increase in strength and capacity, especially in cases of breast, prostate, haematological, and colorectal cancer. However, one of the unexpected outcomes of these studies has been the effect of exercise on fatigue levels. It was first measured due to concern that exercise would exacerbate cancer related fatigue levels, BUT the results proved very interesting… It in fact showed the opposite!
A systematic review from South Australia showed that out of the 47 studies identified relating to exercise and cancer related fatigue, 32 found exercise to significantly reduce cancer related fatigue! In fact, there were no significant studies that didn’t favour an exercise intervention for improving cancer related fatigue.
So… exercise reduces your levels of cancer related fatigue!!
How exactly can exercise help?
As there is still no single definitive cause of cancer related fatigue, determining the physiological reasons as to why exercise is so effective is pretty difficult. When you begin treatment, just the thought of exercise would probably make you feel exhausted. However, if we look at the flip side, we know that without a doubt inactivity leads to increased fatigue. Exercise reduces the distance you can walk without puffing and also the amount you can lift. So therefore, movement allows you to complete all those activities quicker and for a longer period of time.
There are also theories around surmising that resistance training can prevent the dysregulation of our immune system and helps maintain our energy currency (ADP). All of which can be disrupted when we begin muscle wastage. Big words I know! The main take away message is that moderate exercise can increase your capacity to function, improve your quality of life, decrease risk of depression and anxiety, and decrease cancer related fatigue!
What exercise should I do to reduce fatigue levels?
Before we answer this question, I would like to make a caveat… The definition of exercise (and its intensities) is very broad. What a healthy individual calls exercise can be different to what someone undergoing treatment or who is now a survivor does. Also, no two cancers are the same and so no two exercise prescriptions are the same. It should be based on factors such as your cancer diagnosis, side effects, and treatment type, timing and trajectory. Plus your age, current activity levels prior to diagnosis and previous injuries and illnesses.
With all that in mind, research has shown that a combination of both types of training is recommended for you during and post treatment. So far the evidence says that best case scenario is twice a week progressive (60-80% 1RM) resistance training (lifting/moving heavy objects). Adding to two-four times of moderate aerobic (huff and puff) exercise (40-60% max). If you have just undergone a chemo cycle that may be 2 x 5 minutes of a home-based program. This may include sit to stands, wall push ups and a single leg dead lift. If you are feeling strong that maybe 2 x 45 minutes of supervised gym using weights.
Do I need to train throughout my whole treatment?
Interestingly, timing and duration of the activity may be important since one of the biggest effects on fatigue was observed when the exercise intervention lasted until the end of the treatment. So, ensuring you move throughout the entire treatment period/s can decrease your cancer related fatigue by up to 50%. That could mean the difference between getting to the toilet, being capable to watch your children play sport, or even feeding yourself.
If you are unsure about how to begin or keep exercising as you undergo treatment, please feel free to give us a call or an email and we are happy to chat!
Brown 2010, Efficacy of Exercise Interventions in Modulating Cancer-Related Fatigue among Adult Cancer Survivors: A Meta-Analysis. The Journal of Cancer Epidemiology and Biomarkers
Curta et al 2000, Impact of Cancer-Related Fatigue on the Lives of Patients: New Findings From the Fatigue Coalition. The Oncologist vol. 5 no. 5 353-360
Maloney, L 2016, A summary of meta-analytic evidence on the impact of exercise on cancer related fatigue: An umbrella review.
NCCN 2016, Cancer-Related Fatigue, https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/fatigue.pdf