Alberta Cancer Foundation

Exercising Through Cancer-Related Fatigue

Illustration by Andrew Benson

It ranges from mild to severe, but according to Dr. Linda Watson, who leads person-centred care integration, provincial practices at CancerControl Alberta, maintaining an active life is one of the best ways to manage this common symptom.

What is cancer-related fatigue?

Cancer-related fatigue is a common problem that cancer patients experience. It’s understood to be a persistent sense of tiredness, be it physical, cognitive or emotional. Unlike the fatigue experienced by a healthy individual, cancer-related fatigue does not improve with extra rest or sleep. Watson says the duration of cancer-related fatigue varies from patient to patient, sometimes lasting months after cancer treatment is done.

Managing cancer-related fatigue with exercise

Cancer-related fatigue isn’t something that can be cured or fixed, but it can be managed. “There are several ways cancer patients can manage their fatigue, like eating well and getting good-quality sleep. But evidence is strongest around being active,” says Watson.

Like any exercise regimen, there’s no one-size-fits-all program to best manage this symptom. Every patient experiences fatigue differently and everyone has a different fitness level. “We recommend people get 30 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week. If you aren’t already exercising, start slowly with low to moderate activities,” says Watson. She recommends walking, yoga and gardening in 10-minute bursts several times a day. When ready, work up to exercising for longer stretches of time. If individuals are already active, she recommends trying to continue those activities they already enjoy and, if it makes sense, add in strength training. “The most important thing is to be as active as you can,” says Watson. “An exercise plan is all about the individual and taking small steps forward.”