Cancer, Fatigue, and Guilt and That One Co-Worker

I have a confession. Yesterday, I woke up at 10:45 am. Then I woke up again an hour later. Then I also woke up again at 12:15 pm.

The great cancer fatigue

That’s what happens when the fatigue of blood cancer hits – you sleep so long that you inadvertently pass the great AM/PM international dateline barrier. You’d like to plan for it, but you can’t because along with the fatigue comes unpredictability. So, as I lay there at almost 1 pm on a Wednesday, I said to myself, “I suppose I should get up.” Then I laid in bed for another twenty minutes because I’m an adult and I can do what I want… is what I kept telling myself.

The fatigue that comes with cancer is real, and it’s debilitating, and it doesn’t end when chemo does.

Well, sometimes. Other times it does. That’s what makes it so awful – the unpredictability of it all.

Fatigue is like the unreliable co-worker

The fatigue that comes with cancer is like that co-worker you have who never seems to do their work but never gets fired either. You never know when they are going to actively screw up your day, and you never know how they are going to screw it up, but you know that someday soon you’re going to have to fill out all the TPS reports again because they filled in everything one box lower than where it’s supposed to be. Ugh, check the first box!

Anyway, then you go home and you try to sleep but you can’t because you are so annoyed and that’s what most people think fatigue is – just lack of sleep, but it’s more than that.

Lack of restful sleep

First, there’s the lack of sleep. Ha! I know, I just said that there was more to it than that but there’s still some lack of sleep involved that complicated bouillabaisse that is fatigue. Getting a restful night’s sleep when you have cancer or any chronic condition is, let’s call it, tenuous.

Ever see those sleeping pill commercials where someone is sleeping peacefully with a smile on like they just found a lottery ticket worth 1 million dollars but they don’t really need the money but it’s nice to have it anyway just in case? Yeah, that wonderful “I’m not worried about it” grin. Well, that’s so far from the reality of sleeping with cancer that it’s not even in the same galaxy.

If I even end up occupying the same zip code as sleep, it’s a genuine miracle and even when it happens, my face looks less like a lottery winner and more like I just got told that the first coloscopy didn’t take.
Still, that’s a win in the cancer sleeping game, folks and if I happen to accidentally slumber soundly enough to dream for a few seconds, well, heh, that’s a banner day. We have a party when that happens, complete with a cake with my second-grade teacher with a Daffy Duck face with a schoolhouse made out of weirdly sexy robots or whatever bizarre thing the chemo made me dream about. Ahem, yeah, sleep – it’s that rare.

Guilt of wasting the day

Next, along with fatigue comes that most wonderful of emotions – guilt. No matter how often you say to yourself “I have cancer, that’s CANCER for God’s sake,” it still comes.

Yes, like a mother who just told you she’s “not mad, she’s disappointed,” the guilt of laying in bed or sitting in a chair and shirking the responsibilities (which you’ve probably assigned to yourself) can be overwhelming. There is nothing that I hate more than “wasting a whole day” by not getting moving until well after the noon hour.

Now, granted, a lot of that comes from my grandparents who considered it a crime against nature every minute that you slept past 8 am and weren’t outside moving a pile of dirt from one side of the yard to the other. Cancer, chronic illness, missing limbs, brain fell out – it didn’t matter, if you weren’t down at that breakfast table by the crack of 8 then don’t bother asking for food. If you move enough dirt, you get a glass of water and you’ll be thankful for it, and also that much hungrier for lunch.

Yeah, I loved my grandparents, but they were the quintessential specimen of “the greatest generation.” So, much of that guilt for staying in bed comes from them, but even so I still feel like I’d hate to waste a whole day in bed even if my grandparents were Olympic gold medal breakfast in bed winners. Just like any person I have things to do, and I want to be able to do them cancer or not.

Fatigue dragging me down

Finally, like I said, the fatigue is always there, even if it’s not front and center. That means it can be a drain on you like an anchor you drag around. It saps your energy and, more importantly, your drive, constantly. Many times, when most people reach the point where they are reaching the last one-quarter of the gas tank, I’m probably already over it.

That’s why I had to leave parties early (when the world still had parties, that is, not… Zoomies) – because cancer fatigue burns your candle 1.5x faster than most other people and no matter how many cups of coffee, sodas, or slaps to your own face you utilize, when the fatigue timer runs out, you’re done. That’s it, and if you push it too far past the point of no return then you end up paying for it for days.

That’s fatigue with cancer in general, and you can see why it’s such an obstacle. A big, huge, 5000lb elephant who refuses to do his work correctly and you have to take up the slack, err, in the room that is your life. That elephant is always there, and you never know when exactly it’s going to sit on your chest and force you to stay put, but even on the days it doesn’t it’s still there whining and annoying and not doing its work until you give in. Talk soon.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.