The pathophysiology of cancer-related fatigue: current controversies

Support Care Cancer. 2018 Oct;26(10):3353-3364. doi: 10.1007/s00520-018-4318-7. Epub 2018 Jun 30.


Fatigue is one of the most common and debilitating cancer symptoms, and is associated with impaired quality of life. The exact pathophysiology of cancer-related fatigue (CRF) is poorly understood, but in any individual, it is likely multifactorial and involves inter-related cytokine, muscular, neurotransmitter, and neuroendocrine changes. Underlying CRF mechanisms proposed include central and peripheral hypotheses. Central mechanisms include hypotheses about cytokine dysregulation, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis disruption, circadian rhythm disruption, serotonin, and vagal afferent nerve function while peripheral mechanisms include hypotheses about adenosine triphosphate and muscle contractile properties. Currently, these hypotheses are largely based on evidence from other conditions in which fatigue is characteristic. The purpose of this article is to provide a narrative review of the literature and present the current controversies in the pathophysiology of CRF, particularly in relation to central and peripheral hypotheses for CRF. An understanding of pathophysiology may facilitate direct and simple therapeutic interventions for those with cancer.

Keywords: Cancer-related fatigue; Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis; Neuromuscular abnormalities; Pathophysiology; Proinflammatory cytokines; Serotonin.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Fatigue / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / complications*
  • Quality of Life / psychology*