Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to stay healthy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Research has shown that women who exercise have an improved quality of life and have fewer side effects during and following treatment. Exercise has also been shown to enhance overall health and wellness, improve mood, reduce fatigue, and increase stamina. Some research suggests that exercise may reduce the chances of a breast cancer recurrence.
Many doctors recommend low-impact and non-strenuous exercise when going through breast cancer treatment. I know what you’re thinking: “I have breast cancer. I’m trying to take care of my family and life in general. I’m trying to hold down a job through all of this. I’m sick. I’m in pain. I can barely get out of bed. And you want me to do WHAT? Exercise? Are you serious?” I’ve been there.
Luckily, there are different kinds of fun and moderate exercises you can do, such as:
- bed and couch movements
- tai chi
Tips for Exercising with Breast Cancer
Even the smallest movement can countEven during my worst days, when I was couch-bound, I still made an effort to do something. I would do a few leg lifts or slow air punches with my arms while lying on the couch. It helped me mentally more than anything. If you’re bedridden or couch-bound, do some very light movements to keep the blood flowing and lift your spirits.
Feel free to exercise at your own paceStart gradually and build upon each day. On the days I was feeling extra spunky, I would park farther away at the hospital parking lot and enjoy a few extra steps on my way to and from treatment. You’ll be surprised how even the smallest effort will help you both physically and emotionally.
Don’t worry about what others think
One of the most important lessons I learned while exercising during treatment was not to worry about others.
I frequently worked out at the gym at my office for strength training and light jogging on the treadmill. I was bald from chemo. Wearing a wig or scarf during my workout was out of the question — they made me too hot. I’m sure I was a sight to behold.
I eventually got to the point where I didn’t care how I looked. I worked out sporting my bald head and lymphedema sleeve and sang along with the tunes on my iPod. What I didn’t anticipate were the countless individuals who approached me to let me know how much I inspired them with my grit and strength to fight.
Honor your body and what you’re going through. A few months after my lumpectomy, I was at the playground with my stepson and decided to chase him across the monkey bars. This was a very normal activity precancer. In that moment, I completely forgot I was post-surgery and in the middle of treatment. As my entire body weight was hanging from the bars, I felt the scar tissue along my breast and side rip and I was in excruciating pain. Oops.
And with side effects like dizziness and vertigo, it doesn’t matter what the latest article says about the health benefits of aerial yoga. Exercises that involve a lot of movement where your head is below your waist can be extremely dangerous. I also learned very quickly that burpees aren’t recommended when you have vertigo.
Always talk to your physicians and especially a lymphedema specialist before embarking on an exercise program. They may recommend for you to be fitted with a compression sleeve to help minimize the swelling in your arm.
The routine you used to do before cancer may not be appropriate during treatment. Your doctor can also help clear you on which exercises you can do on your own and which you may need help from a physical therapist.
Remember that exercise has its benefits
Many doctors worry that strength training can trigger the onset of lymphedema, which is the swelling of the soft tissues of the arm. If you’ve had breast cancer surgery, and especially if lymph nodes were removed, you’re inherently at risk for lymphedema. But benefits of exercise may outweigh the risks by far.
For example, exercise triggers apoptosis, the death of cancer cells, and helps cut your odds from dying from cancer.
- prevent constipation
- boost energy
- reduce fatigue
- improve sleep
- improve heart health
- prevent weight gain
- manage stress and anxiety
- improve bone health
Exercise During Treatment
Up to 90 percent of patients receiving radiation and up to 80 percent of those receiving chemo experience a kind of fatigue characterized by weakness and lack of energy. An impressive roster of studies indicates that exercise can measurably improve the type of fatigue brought on by treatment. In a review published in March 2018 in the Breast Journal, researchers note that exercise (among other behavioral changes) is more effective than medications at managing fatigue. The researchers said that, unlike medication, exercise may get at the underlying causes for fatigue, rather than just offering temporary relief.
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