The Importance of Exercise During and After Cancer Treatment

Exercise is essential to our overall well-being, and new research shows that it’s actually as safe and beneficial for most cancer thrivers to work out during treatment as it is after. Exercise has the potential to reduce not only some of the physical side effects of treatment, but some of the cognitive and psychological symptoms as well.1 According to the American Cancer Society, women with breast cancer should exercise regularly (up to four times per week), claiming that active individuals “have a lower risk of cancer recurrence and improved survival compared with those who are inactive.”2 They also have a reduced risk of developing new cancers.1

Exercise during chemotherapy and radiation.

When it comes to exercising during chemotherapy or radiation treatment, it’s important to consult an oncologist to determine the right workout regimen. Everyone is different, and in some circumstances, rest and relaxation might be best. The degree of activity we engage in also depends upon how active we were before being diagnosed. If the word ‘exercise’ was not in our vocabulary, it’s important to take it easy at first and gradually increase the type and intensity of our workouts. It’s even possible to request a referral to a physical therapist who works with cancer patients and customizes individualized exercise programs based on different treatment protocols.

Let’s be clear. When we’re talking ‘exercise,’ we’re not talking about running a marathon or climbing a summit. Think something more along the lines of moderate aerobic exercise, such as riding a stationary bike, yoga or taking a brisk walk 3 to 5 times a week, or classes that incorporate light weights or resistance bands for strength training. Caution: one exercise to avoid during treatment is swimming due to the number of germs contained in pools and the fact that our bodies might be less able to fight infection.4

Exercise after breast surgery and treatment.

How soon to start exercising really depends on the type of treatment or surgery we had, the rate of our recovery and our fitness level beforehand. Those who were highly active prior to being diagnosed may find it restorative to take easy strolls as early as the first week after surgery, always being mindful to minimize lifting and pushing from the upper body. Others may need more time to rest and opt to ease into activity in later weeks. After any surgery, it’s important to perform gentle shoulder and arm exercises, as advised by our doctor, in order to regain mobility and flexibility.4 And for those going through radiation or chemotherapy, energy levels and fatigue will likely dictate what we may or may not be able to handle. Most important is to balance active recovery with the mindfulness of listening to our bodies, so that we don’t over-strain or cause harm.

What are the benefits of exercise during and after treatment?

Exercise during and after treatment increases the number and activity of natural killer cells and other immune cells, such as T cells, and has the potential to:

  • Boost energy levels
  • Increase cardiopulmonary fitness
  • Improve treatment outcome
  • Ease nausea during chemotherapy
  • Improve blood flow to the legs, reducing the risk of blood clots
  • (Re)build muscular strength
  • Reduce fatigue caused by radiation/chemotherapy (40-50% less)3
  • Prevent weight gain
  • Decrease depression
  • Manage stress and anxiety
  • Improve body and self-esteem
  • Promote happiness
  • Keep bones and heart healthy
  • Improve sleep quality
  • Increase libido
  • Prevent constipation
  • Decrease the risk of lymphedema and reoccurrence of breast cancer5

All in all, exercise during and after breast cancer treatment has the potential to promote post-traumatic growth, in which we can learn to take something positive away from a very difficult, life-altering situation. Being physically active can make us feel alive and rejuvenated at a time when other parts of our bodies don’t feel particularly strong or vibrant. Through physical exertion and breath, exercise has the power to nurture some of the inner and physical strength we need in order to fight disease, setting us up for a better chance of long-term survival and health.6

“Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” – Theodore Roosevelt