Cancer Fatigue

“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” The patient slumped in her chair, welling up with tears. “This is so hard. I have no energy! What can I do? By the time I’ve got myself ready for the day I just want to go back to bed!”

No wonder. She had been through several rounds of consecutive chemotherapy and radiation. These treatments sap you of energy, and the toll on the body is accumulative. I knew she would not like what I was about to say.

“There is something you can do, but you’re not going to like it. Move. Exercise. Studies are clear that light to moderate exercise improves energy, even with advanced cancer. In fact, it’s as important as chemo and radiation. The key is to do it incrementally, and in a way that you enjoy. Go for a short walk with a friend. 20 minutes or so, or until you’re tired. Then, next day, go a little further. If it’s really hard, just go to the next telephone pole. And mix it up. Do some light weight-lifting, put some strain on your muscles. And do it as a gift to your body, not a burden to your day. Attitude is important.”

“But I’ve never exercised! How am I supposed to start now that I’m sick?” I could see her spirit was spent. It would need a boost before she could give her body one.

“Look upon this as an opportunity to start again,” I said. “Love and nurture your body as a way  to better engage with the life you’re fighting for. Yes, you are enduring an onslaught of heavy treatment and invasive cancer, but you’re not powerless in this. Exercise is something you can do now, and will significantly improve your quality of life, even reduce treatment side-effects.”

Easy for me to say! I wasn’t the one who’s body had been blasted. No wonder fatigue is the #1 complaint of those facing treatment. It’s important to know that it may last months, even years after treatment is done. That’s because it is quite unlike normal fatigue. So, any small, consistent efforts are all the more critical – they build a stronger foundation of energy over the rest of your life. Like compound interest, the long-term results can be surprising.

Dr. Mike Evans, founder of the Health Design Lab at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, lays it out nicely in this video. He notes that this is not something you do alone – your family, friends, physiotherapist, even your dog play important roles. And, exercise improves other areas of life, too. Anxiety, fear and depression, for example, are common in the cancer journey, and best treated with exercise and speaking with an expert (like a chaplain!).

When we come at exercise with a perspective of gratitude, gift and grace, every step becomes praise. – David Maginley

And, exercise is an important spiritual practice! Your body is amazing, and taking care of it is an act of stewardship that increases vitality on all levels. It brings your power back, as well as your partnership with God in bringing your best self to the hardest time. This is one of the ways we can honour and celebrate this gift of life we’ve been given. When we come at exercise with a perspective of gratitude, gift and grace, every step becomes praise.

See Managing Cancer Related Fatigue: For People Affected by Cancer for more help on how you can get moving and improve your cancer experience.

Question: What small step will you take?

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