Cancer-treatment fatigue is more than just being tired. It is an overwhelming sense of tiredness that is not always relieved by rest. It can be mild, causing a person to have less energy to do the things he or she wants to do; or it can be severe, affecting many areas of a person’s life and resulting in the inability to do basic activities.
Fatigue is one of the most common side effects of cancer treatment. It can affect many areas of normal living, including one’s desire to eat and drink. Left unchecked, it can lead to severe consequences such as malnutrition and dehydration, which contribute to additional fatigue, thus creating a dangerous cycle.
How Fatigue Affects Nutrition
Fatigue can significantly affect one’s desire to eat as well as one’s energy to prepare basic meals and snacks. Even walking to the kitchen can feel like running a marathon. This lack of energy is often overwhelming, causing patients to go many hours or even full days with only a few bites of food. This pattern leads to malnutrition and dehydration, both of which lead to more fatigue.
Eating for Energy
Many patients are in search of foods that will give them energy to overcome the fatigue. Unfortunately, there are no such foods. Even caffeine can reduce long-term energy levels and impair sleep, leading to additional fatigue. Foods that are purported to be a good source of energy simply provide calories (energy for the metabolism) but don’t provide a cancer patient with the type of energy he or she seeks.
Some cancer patients turn to herbal supplements such as guarana, ma huang, or ginseng for an energy boost. These are known stimulants, but the stimulation provided by these supplements has not been proven safe or effective in cancer-treatment fatigue. In addition, because they have known side effects and may interact with medications, they are not recommended during cancer treatment.
Eating Despite Fatigue
The best advice for people with cancer treatment fatigue is to eat a balanced diet that includes protein foods such as meat, eggs, cheese, peas, and beans and to drink eight to 10 glasses of fluids per day. Preventing malnutrition and dehydration can help keep baseline energy levels up and provide the body with the fuel it needs to maintain basic activities, although this is easier said than done.
Here are some tips to make meeting your nutritional needs easier during this difficult time:
- Ask for help. Friends and family members are usually happy to prepare meals or go to the grocery store.
- Set a timer for 60-minute intervals. Eat a few bites and drink some fluids every time the timer goes off.
- Eat a few bites every time a commercial comes on TV.
- Keep a cooler or mini-refrigerator in the room where you rest or next to your chair or bed. Keep it stocked with yogurt, pudding, cheese, milk, juice, or nutritional supplement drinks.
- Keep nonperishable food items such as nuts, dried fruit, juice boxes, crackers, and peanut butter next to your chair or bed and nibble often.
- Eat high-calorie, high-protein foods to maximize your nutritional intake.
If you feel your fatigue is interfering with your ability to eat and drink, please discuss this with your healthcare team.
By Erin Dummert, RD, CD