The Mental Fatigue of Cancer Is Real

Fatigue. It’s always a popular topic when talking about blood cancer. Why? Because we all experience it, sometimes for years after we are in remission, and doctors rarely talk about it other than to say, “it’s a possible side effect.” I know, I know, right now, we’re all fatigued about talking about fatigue – physical fatigue. The thing is, there’s an entire second facet to fatigue that almost always falls by the wayside – mental fatigue, and it’s real and just as debilitating.

Physical fatigue and mental fatigue

That’s right – I hate to be the bearer of bad news but the fatigue you feel isn’t going to be confined to your body. Your brain is gonna get hit as well. I know, it’s like... does the fun ever stop?

With cancer, the answer is always “no.” Or “yes.” I forget. Whichever one is worse. The point is that mental fatigue comes in many forms and is much more insidious than the obvious physical fatigue that we all know.

What does mental fatigue feel like? Well, think back and try to remember a day when you reached your limit of anxiety, pain, and stress (it shouldn’t be difficult), and then try to imagine what it would be like if you had to deal with a friend popping in before bedtime. While your body may be able to handle it, you know you just don’t have the emotional fuel and mental power to sit and make it through a conversation, especially one where you are talking about the same things you’ve been talking about for months. It’s just too much. Well, that’s mental fatigue and it’s awful.

How is mental fatigue different?

Now, I feel like there is a decent number of you who didn’t even realize that mental fatigue was an actual, separate thing until just now, reading this, and that’s totally normal. Many of those of us who suffer with cancer just lump the mental aspects of the illness in with everything else and don’t take the time to consider it as the distinct and separate symptom that it is. It’s important though, because it takes its own set of remedies to overcome and keep up that all important positive outlook that all our doctors keep telling us we must maintain.

So, that’s that then.. right? Now that you know about it you can get rid of that pesky anxiety, and all will be well. Easy peasy! Ha! If only t’were that simple. It’s not. The mental stress and anxiety of cancer is overwhelming and it’s a daily fight to keep enough emotional fuel in the tank to do the things you need to do. Here’s some of the things I’ve discovered that might help.

Learning to say 'No'

First and foremost – you have to learn that all important two-letter word. No, it’s not FU, but it sort of means the same thing just wrapped up in a much more socially acceptable package. I’m talking about “no.” That’s right, you have to learn that deceptively difficult skill of telling people “No.”

I know you’re probably saying, “how hard can it be?” Hard. Really hard, actually. Especially when people are just trying to help you and show they care, it becomes extremely difficult to tell them “no,” that you just don’t have the mental energy for it – and that goes double if they are asking for the second or third or fifteenth time.

Too many of us are in the habit of using up all our emotional fuel to appease others and help them feel like they did their good deed of friendship for the month when we should be greedily saving up every bit of that precious mental energy for ourselves.

Discovering your limits

Second, you have to learn your limits. I mean, it’s nigh impossible to tell how much mental energy you actually have if you don’t know how big the tank is! It would be nice if you could just check in the mirror to clock the fuel gauge built into the back of your head. Although, even if you could, most of us would be like “ehhh, I can make it to the next emotional gas station, there’s still a sliver left.”

Without a gauge, though, you must learn your own signs for when your stress levels are about to boil over. For me, I get inexplicably short with others around me and easily fed up with people I think are “bothering me.” A knock at the door, a text, or God forbid the worst thing of all – a phone call, all make me irrationally upset and annoyed. That’s my “uh oh, your mental energy is almost gone,” dashboard light, but whatever yours is, make sure to pay attention to it. Also keep in mind, the size of your tank can change on a day-to-day basis.

Rest your mind as well as your body

Finally, and this one is easy, but you have to rest your mind! Just like your body, you have to give your brain time to recharge, time for the stress and anxiety levels to decrease, and time for you to have a chance to center yourself. For me, that means distracting myself with something fun and mindless like video games, but whatever your thing is, you must make time to do it! Or not do it. Whatever it is. Or isn’t. You get it.

Look, the fatigue of cancer is real, and the mental fatigue of cancer is really real. You have to respect it and take the time to salve your brain just like every other aspect of this wretched illness in order to give yourself the best chance for a good outcome. Talk soon.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

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.