Fatigue is a monster for patients with pulmonary disease


If you’re looking for it, you’ll find fatigue almost everywhere. It’s so common that it hides in plain sight, never dealt with because it’s present for good reason: the inevitable consequence of age, whatever disease you’re treating, poor lifestyle choices, and the daily grind of twenty-first–century life. Its impact is so ubiquitous and pernicious that it’s considered acceptable.

Is it though? After all, fatigue can be debilitating. Not every symptom is worthy of a chronic syndrome bearing its name. Furthermore, what if its relationship to the disease you’re treating is bidirectional? What if we actually paid attention, asked about it, and expended energy trying to relieve it? Could we improve quality of life and other outcomes too?

Outside of sleep medicine, I see little focus on fatigue among pulmonologists. This despite the existing data on fatigue related to sarcoidosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and interstitial lung disease. Even when we do pay it lip service, “addressing” fatigue or sleep is essentially a euphemism for ordering a sleep study.

As with fatigue, if you look for obstructive sleep apnea, it’ll be there, although with OSA, it’s related to the incredibly low, nonevidence-based threshold the American Academy of Sleep Medicine has established for making the diagnosis. With continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) in hand, the patient has a new disease to worry about and a difficult behavioral change (wearing, cleaning, and resupplying their CPAP equipment) to make. Too often, the CPAP isn’t used – or is – and the fatigue persists. But it’s okay, because we followed somebody’s guideline.

The American Thoracic Society just published a research statement on cancer-related fatigue. It is comprehensive and highlights the high prevalence and poor recognition of cancer-related fatigue. The authors note that among cancers, those of the lung are associated with a higher comorbid disease burden, older age, and cigarette smoking. All these factors make patients with lung cancer particularly prone to fatigue. Interactions between these factors, lung cancer histology, and specific chemotherapy regimens are poorly understood. True to its title, the “research statement” serves more as a call to action than an evidence-based blueprint for diagnosis and management.

The cancer-related fatigue data that does exist suggests treatment starts with recognition followed by a focus on sleep, exercise, and nutrition. This should surprise no one. The data on fatigue in general (not specific to cancer-related fatigue) shows that although fatigue is not synonymous with poor quality or insufficient sleep, sleep is usually a major factor. The cancer-related conditions affecting sleep include anxiety, depression, insufficient sleep, insomnia, medication side effects, and OSA. The intersecting web is complex, but across underlying conditions (cancer or otherwise), the quickest most efficient method for mitigating fatigue is optimizing sleep.

Exercise and nutrition are also important. Again, across disease processes (interstitial lung disease, COPD, lung cancer, and so on), no drug comes close to aerobic exercise for reducing symptoms, including fatigue. If an exercise prescription could be delivered in pill-form, it’d be a blockbuster. But it can’t be, and the ATS lung cancer–related fatigue research statement nicely outlines the evidence for increased activity levels and the barriers to obtaining support and compliance. As is the case with exercise, support for improving nutrition is limited by cost, access, and patient education.

Perhaps most importantly, sleep, exercise, and nutrition require time for counseling and a behavior change for the physician and patient. Both are in short supply, and commitment is always ephemeral. Incentivization could perhaps be re-structured, but the ATS document notes this will be challenging. With respect to pulmonary rehabilitation (about 50% of patients with lung cancer have comorbid COPD), for example, reimbursement is poor, which serves as a disincentive. Their suggestions? Early integration and repeated introduction to rehabilitation and exercise concepts. Sounds great.

In summary, in my opinion, fatigue doesn’t receive the attention level commensurate with its impact. It’s easy to understand why, but I’m glad the ATS is highlighting the problem. Unbeknownst to me, multiple cancer guidelines already recommend screening for fatigue. The recent sarcoidosis treatment guideline published by the European Respiratory Society dedicated a PICO (Patients, Intervention, Comparison, Outcomes) to the topic and recommended exercise (pulmonary rehabilitation). That said, consensus statements on COPD mention it only in passing in relation to severe disease and end-of-life care, and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis guidelines ignore it entirely. So, recognition is improving, but we’ve got ways to go.

Dr. Aaron Holley

Dr. Aaron Holley

Dr. Holley is professor of medicine at Uniformed Services University, Bethesda, Md., and a pulmonary/sleep and critical care medicine physician at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington. He disclosed ties with Metapharm, CHEST College, and WebMD.

A version of this article originally appeared on

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