Research reflections - Overcoming fatigue
Cancer treatment can be exhausting. With a heavy treatment schedule, plus other appointments and high stress levels, it’s no surprise that many cancer patients experience fatigue during treatment.
But did you know that radiation therapy may actually cause biological changes in the body that lead to fatigue – that it’s not just ‘in your head’? In fact, about one-third of cancer patients who go through radiation therapy experience severe fatigue that can last for months after treatment. For some people, the fatigue can last for years.
Lynne Kett-Hiscoe led an active life in Ottawa working for an accounting firm, serving on the parent council and fundraising at her son’s school. Then, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 at age 51 and started aggressive treatment.
As part of her treatment, Lynne received radiation therapy, which left her with unexpected, debilitating fatigue lasting at least a year. “Normally, I’m very active and I never really sit. My husband and kids noticed I was dragging, and my friends couldn’t figure out why I didn’t want to do things,” says Lynne. “I was very disappointed I couldn’t do more. I wanted to get my life back to normal.”
With funding from the Canadian Cancer Society, Dr Fei-Fei Liu has been investigating the medical cause of radiation-related fatigue for breast cancer patients, a side effect which has not been studied in great detail. Dr Liu will evaluate 80 women undergoing radiation therapy to learn whether observed differences in the number of blood-forming stem cells circulating in patients may be a factor in fatigue. She will also test whether women who suffer the most fatigue could be making more cytokines – immune system proteins that promote inflammation – in response to radiation.
Dr Liu, a radiation oncologist and researcher at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, believes certain cytokines may cross from the blood into the brain, where they could cause fatigue. “If we find that an inflammatory cytokine is the culprit, we can test whether drugs that are currently used to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis might benefit these patients,” she says.
“Our goal is to find a treatment that will help breast cancer survivors get their lives back, almost as if the disease had never happened.”
Today, Lynne has her life back. She works part-time, volunteers with the Society’s peer support program and is as active as ever with family and friends. But she wishes doctors could have warned her and given a medical explanation for her tiredness. “If there was some way to relieve fatigue after treatment, that would be wonderful,” she says.
How about you? Did you experience fatigue after radiation ended and how long did it last? Did you find things that helped you cope with that tiredness? This has been a common discussion topic in our community over the years – here’s a great one and I hope you’ll add to it. And be sure to check out this video on fatigue to learn more.