Learning how to conserve energy and live with fatigue

Rina was pregnant with her third child when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2014. Her parents flew out from Denmark to spend the next year helping her and her family as she underwent treatment.

With two young children already, Rina thought she knew what fatigue felt like. However, she wasn’t prepared for the debilitating and ongoing side effects of treatment, in particular, radiotherapy. There have been times when the fatigue is so bad, she can barely move.

‘All my life, I’ve been a very high achiever. I’ve always believed that I could do whatever I wanted to, but this kind of fatigue is something I can’t just overcome. I have had to learn to manage it,’ she says.

This has meant slowing down significantly and, as a result, Rina misses out on things she’d like to do, such as being more involved in her children’s school community.

‘I simply don’t have the energy to volunteer at the school, help with fundraisers, work at night or coach. When my kids ask me why I can’t be one of those parents who come along, I have to explain to them that mummy can’t do that because of her poor health,’ says Rina.

Instead, she tries to stay ahead of her fatigue by dividing her day into blocks. Mornings are spent with her kids before she goes to work for a couple of hours at the small cafe and wine shop she runs with her husband. She loves to garden there, but has to be careful not to get carried away with too much physical work.

‘The fatigue is much worse when I don’t listen to myself,’ she says. ‘Too much activity can aggravate my bone mets and set me back for days.’

The afternoon is when Rina rests, before the kids come home.

‘I’ll make a pot of tea, healthy snacks, read a book, or just lie down and listen to an audiobook,’ she says.

Rina continues to focus on the things she can control – her nutrition and exercise – to ensure her body is as strong and healthy as possible. She finds the more she exercises, the more energy she has.

‘I have always been active. It’s essential to my wellbeing. When I haven’t been able to exercise, I really notice the difference in my mental health, but also less activity makes me even more tired,’ she says.

These days, Rina walks as much as she can, does yoga, and follows a program developed by her exercise physiologist. It is tailored to strengthen her muscles, particularly around areas where she has tumours, like in her spine and hip. Exercise also helps to significantly reduce her pain.

Since being diagnosed, Rina has become much more comfortable asking for help.

‘When people ask what they can do, my standard answer is always “A meal would be lovely”. It’s something everyone can do and it is an enormous help. It saves me the energy of planning, going to the shops and cooking. I think accepting the support of others has strengthened my friendships,’ she says.

Rina is very careful with what she chooses to spend her energy on, with her family her highest priority.

‘I’ve changed many little things in my life to manage the fatigue, like doing my grocery shopping online, so I have more time for more important things.’

Rina is accepting of her diagnosis and her future.

‘This is the hand I’ve been given. In many ways, at the risk of sounding trite, my cancer has made my life better,’ she says. ‘My husband and I knew we didn’t have all the time in the world, so it really propelled our decision to move out of the city to live in a community we love, and I’m really grateful for that.’

Listen toBCNA’s Upfront About Breast Cancer podcast on managing fatigue to hear Rina and Kathy Wells talk about treatment-related fatigue with Specialist Breast Care Nurse Kathryn Wallace. You can learn more about managing fatigue in My Journey.

Issue 89
Spring 2021