'Extreme fatigue after cancer treatment is indescribable'
Extreme fatigue and feeling constantly tired are the often little known about side-effects experienced by those who have been through cancer treatment.AASMA DAY talks to two friends who have survived cancer and have been helped by specialist sessions at St Catherine's Hospice to cope with the unexpected life changes caused by the illness
IT was by chance that Sue Noon felt an unusual feeling in her breast while in the shower and decided to get it checked out.
Sue, 62, who is married to Bryan and has a daughter, explains: “It was just before Christmas and it just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t a lump, but just a feeling of hardness.”
Sue’s GP sent her for a mammogram and although it did not show anything concerning, the consultant felt there was something there, so sent Sue for an ultrasound scan that same day.
As a result, Sue was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer and she underwent a lumpectomy and she then had 15 sessions of radiotherapy over three weeks.
Sue, who lives in Leyland and works at Leyland Methodist School’s after-school club, admits: “The operation was the easy bit – I wasn’t prepared for the effects of radiotherapy.
“You think once you’ve finished treatment for cancer, that’s it, but you have to live with the after-effects.
“I knew from reading the leaflets that radiotherapy would make me tired. It was only after the radiotherapy was over that I actually started to feel the sheer exhaustion.
“Nothing prepares you for the fatigue you experience. It is a intense tiredness you can’t describe.
“I thought I would be able to go to work as normal after the treatment but I was just totally exhausted. However, it does not affect everyone the same. For a while, I felt like she was the only one suffering from such side effects.”
Sue’s friend Jeff Whittle, who she knows from Leyland Methodist Church, who had also been through cancer treatment, told her about a course run through a partnership between St Catherine’s Hospice in Lostock Hall and the North West Fatigue Clinic.
The course, which runs over four sessions, helped Sue a great deal and meeting other people suffering similar side-effects made her realise she wasn’t alone.
Sue says: “I met people who were still suffering from tiredness two years after going through cancer. The course was very useful and meeting other people in the same situation helped me a great deal.”
The STREAM (Stress, Relaxation and Anxiety Management) four-week course, run in partnership with the North West Fatigue Clinic, focuses on coping with stress and anxiety and promoting relaxation in people with cancer to help them manage and combat cancer-related fatigue.
It aims to empower people to live better with their condition by informing them about triggers and symptoms of fatigue and equipping them with practical coping strategies such as pacing, breathing techniques, meditation and mindfulness.
Sue says: “For me, it has released a lot of frustration. My outcome was successful and I thought I should probably be feeling more bright and lively.
“I didn’t realise the radiotherapy would make me so exhausted, but now I understand that it’s normal to feel like this.
“Everyone at the course was saying what I was feeling – it was a revelation.
“I was told that I would feel tired, but you have no real perception of what they really mean until you go through it.
“It’s like a wall hits you.
“One thing I’ve learnt is that I need to break up my day more. Before, if I was having a good day, I would go mad and try to get lots of jobs done, but then it would knock me out for a few days. I know now that I need to take my time and have rests even if I don’t feel too tired on certain days.
“There was a session about relaxation which was brilliant. We practised breathing techniques and we’ve been given a CD to take home to help us carry on with the things we’ve learnt at the hospice.”
Jeff underwent his last bout of treatment two years ago for oesophageal cancer which resulted in his oesophagus being removed.
He, too, has been surprised by the unexpected fatigue he’s faced in recent years.
Jeff, 72, who is married to Ann and has a daughter and two grandchildren, says: “After a lump was found in my oesophagus, I had chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
“However, when I had another check-up, a very tiny cancer was still there so the only way to get rid of it was keyhole surgery.
“Since the operation, I have been suffering from fatigue and getting tired very quickly.
“I heard about this STREAM course at St Catherine’s Hospice through a cancer support meeting I attended.
“It’s been good to listen to other people.”
Jeff, who lives in Leyland and is a retired project engineer for the fire alarm industry, says the biggest thing he learnt through the STREAM course is “10 ways to say no.”
Jeff explains: “I’m involved in a lot of different things and I volunteer quite a bit, especially with the church, but I’ve realised that sometimes I need to say ‘no’ and make time for myself.
“I’m learning now how to switch off and feel less guilty about not saying ‘yes’ to everything as I know it will just leave me feeling drained.”
Lesley Pickering, one of the occupational therapists from the North West Fatigue Clinic delivering the programme, explains: “Cancer affects people in many different ways, causing lots of different symptoms, but what can be a common problem for many is the fatigue that the illness and its associated treatments can cause.
“What we mean by fatigue is extreme tiredness which is not improved with rest and this can cause lots of other issues such as a lack of concentration and difficulty doing even the smallest activities, problems sleeping, feeling more emotional than usual and difficulty thinking clearly and making decisions.
“What the STREAM project does is equip people with the practical knowledge and skills to help them manage these symptoms themselves at home. Patients are supported and encouraged to continue to practise the techniques taught at the sessions using an audio resource, handouts and activities. The aim is to improve both the physical and psychological symptoms of fatigue and in turn help people living with cancer enjoy a better quality of life.”
Topics covered during the workshops included sleep hygiene, routines and pacing, and stress and anxiety management.
Another four-week course will start on September 23 and will be held in the upstairs function rooms at The Mill cafe and community hub in the grounds of St Catherine’s Park, Lostock Hall.
It is free to attend and sessions last one hour.
• To book, call 01772 695277 or e-mail [email protected]