Cognitive behavioral therapy or graded exercise therapy compared with usual care for severe fatigue in patients with advanced cancer during treatment: a randomized controlled trial

Ann Oncol. 2020 Jan;31(1):115-122. doi: 10.1016/j.annonc.2019.09.002.


Background: Cancer-related fatigue remains a prevalent and burdensome symptom experienced by patients with advanced cancer. Our aim was to assess the effects of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or graded exercise therapy (GET) on fatigue in patients with advanced cancer during treatment with palliative intent.

Patients and methods: A randomized controlled trial was conducted from 1 January 2013 to 1 September 2017. Adult patients with locally advanced or metastatic cancer who reported severe fatigue during treatment [Checklist Individual Strength, subscale fatigue severity (CIS-fatigue) ≥35] were accrued across nine centers in The Netherlands. Patients were randomly assigned to either 12 weeks of CBT or GET, or usual care (1 : 1: 1, computer-generated sequence). Primary outcome was CIS-fatigue at 14 weeks. Secondary outcomes included fatigue measured with the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer-Quality of Life Questionnaire (EORTC-QLQ-C30), quality of life, emotional functioning, physical functioning, and functional impairments at baseline, 14, 18, and 26 weeks.

Results: Among 134 participants randomized, the mean age was 63 (standard deviation 9) years and 77 (57%) were women. Common diagnoses included: breast (41%), colorectal (28%), and prostate cancer (17%). A total of 126 participants completed assessment at 14 weeks. Compared with usual care, CBT significantly reduced fatigue [difference -7.2, 97.5% confidence interval (CI) -12.7 to -1.7; P = 0.003, d = 0.7], whereas GET did not (-4.7, 97.5% CI -10.2 to 0.9; P = 0.057, d = 0.4). CBT significantly reduced EORTC-QLQ-C30 fatigue (-13.1, 95% CI -22.1 to -4.0; P = 0.005) and improved quality of life (10.2, 95% CI 2.4 to 17.9; P = 0.011) and physical functioning (7.1, 95% CI 0.5 to 13.7; P = 0.036) compared with usual care. Improvement in emotional functioning and decrease in functional impairments failed to reach significance. GET did not improve secondary outcomes compared with usual care.

Conclusions: Among advanced cancer patients with severe fatigue during treatment, a CBT intervention was more effective than usual care for reducing fatigue. Following GET, patients reported lower fatigue, but results were not significant, probably due to a smaller sample size and lower adherence than anticipated.

Trial registration: Netherlands National Trial Register, identifier: NTR3812.

Keywords: cognitive therapy; exercise therapy; fatigue; neoplasms; quality of life.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy*
  • Exercise Therapy
  • Fatigue / etiology
  • Fatigue / therapy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neoplasms* / complications
  • Neoplasms* / therapy
  • Netherlands
  • Quality of Life
  • Treatment Outcome

Associated data

  • NTR/NTR3812