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Cancer Survivors Manage Fatigue With Placebo Pills


Cancer survivors may be able to manage the extreme fatigue they experience after treatment by knowingly taking a placebo pill, according to researchers at University of Alabama at Birmingham and Harvard Medical School.

After treatment, cancer survivors still experience extreme fatigue with few treatments available on the market to help these former patients deal with exhaustion, and the best treatments to alleviate fatigue have many side effects, including panic, psychosis, and heart failure. However, cancer survivors may be able to manage their fatigue by knowingly taking a placebo pill, according to researchers at University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and Harvard Medical School.

A study published in Nature Scientific Reports found that cancer survivors who were advised to take placebo pills reported a 29% improvement in fatigue severity and a 39% improvement in fatigue disrupting the quality of life.

“Cancer survivors report that fatigue is their most distressing symptom, even more distressing than other symptoms like nausea or pain, and clinicians struggle to find ways to help them with it,” Teri Hoenemeyer, PhD, lead author and director of Education and Supportive Services at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center in a press release. “The effects of the placebo pills on fatigue were so dramatic that we had a number of the study patients ask if they could be given more placebo pills. For ethical reasons, we were unable to do so.”

74 survivors of different types of cancer who reported feelings of fatigue were included in the study. Half were assigned a pharmacological treatment while the other half knowingly took two placebo pills, twice per day, for three weeks.

“Participants still had benefits three weeks after they stopped taking the placebo pills, which hasn’t been shown before,” explained Kevin Fontaine, PhD, co-author and chair of the Department of Health Behavior in the UAB School of Public Health. “The extension of benefits even when the placebo pills are discontinued has been a surprise finding that has many placebo researchers excited.”

Patients who were treated as usual were given the opportunity to take placebo pills for another three weeks while the placebo group stopped taking the pills. Both cohorts found a reduction in their fatigue after the study.

“Some people who thought the placebo wouldn’t do anything had a good response; others who believed it would help didn’t have a response,” said Hoenemeyer. “Fooling or deceiving patients may be unnecessary for placebo effects to produce benefits, with automatic neurological processes being a possible mechanism for the effects. This has revolutionary implications for how we might exploit the power of placebo effects in clinical practice.”


Hoenemeyer TW, Kaptchuk TJ, Mehta TS, Fontaine KR. Open-label placebo treatment for cancer-related fatigue: a randomized-controlled clinical trial. Scientific Reports. 2018. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-20993-y. Published online February 9, 2018. Accessed February 19, 2018. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-20993-y.

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