Tips for Addressing Fatigue

Medically Reviewed By: Stephanie Tung, MD

Most people have experienced a day where they felt overly tired and unable increase their energy levels. Perhaps it’s from a long shift at work, a difficult round of treatment, or trying to make time for your family after a full day. Feeling tried or overextended is normal, but when does that feeling of tiredness become something more serious?

Here, Stephanie Tung, MD, a Dana-Farber psychiatrist in Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care, talks about fatigue — including its causes, effects on cancer patients, and how to address it.  

What is fatigue?

Fatigue is a symptom or a side effect that is defined as an unrelenting feeling of physical and mental exhaustion. Those who suffer from fatigue will often lack energy and motivation. Other symptoms may include difficulties with memory or concentration, unexplained muscle or joint pain, unrefreshing sleep, and headaches.

Patients with cancer often report experiencing fatigue due to either the diagnosis itself or from its treatments. Persistent or worsening fatigue (also known as chronic fatigue) should be discussed with a trusted medical professional as it can affect your physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.

What causes fatigue?

The exact causes of fatigue are still unknown, but the symptom can often be traced back to an underlying reason, such as a lifestyle habit or medical condition. By identifying the source, your provider can create a plan to properly treat it.

Your doctor will want to know about your dietary and exercise habits, as well as confirmation you’re staying properly hydrated. Chronic stress can also lead to fatigue, as can an inconsistent sleep routine.

The reason may also be out of your control. It could be due to the stress of a cancer diagnosis, or even a side effect of the cancer treatments. For example, aches and pains may prevent you from getting adequate sleep.

Is fatigue the same as depression?

No. Fatigue and depression are not the same. Depression is a common, but serious mental illness, that can impact how you feel, think, and manage daily activities. Depression can make even baseline self-care feel like a chore. Fatigue, on the other hand, is a symptom.

While the two are not the same, they often overlap. Fatigue is a common symptom of depression, and those with chronic fatigue may eventually become depressed.

Will more sleep help?

While sleeping more may help, it’s not what’s first recommended. It is more important to have quality sleep than to simply sleep for a longer period of time. Do you feel well rested when you wake up? If not, is there a particular reason why?

Many times, sticking to a consistent sleep schedule and practicing healthy sleep habits can help. This means going to bed at the same time each night, creating bedtime rituals to help your body and mind relax, and keeping naps short (and on a schedule) throughout the day.

What can I do?

A consistent sleep routine, adequate exercise, and sticking to a healthy diet are all ways to address fatigue. However, it’s important to identify the underlying root of this symptom. The reason for an individual’s fatigue is as unique as they are. By identifying and treating its cause, rather than just the symptoms, your provider will be able to identify an effective treatment plan.

About the Medical Reviewer

Stephanie Tung, MD

Dr. Stephanie Tung is a staff psychiatrist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. She has subspecialty training in medical psychiatry, psychosocial oncology and women's mental health.