In the last week or so, my breast cancer support group had an email thread about exercising during treatment. How much is enough? What’s too much? How do you decide what exercises to do?
It’s also not a surprise that the cancer patients and survivors in my support group should be a little confused.
Just five years ago, the standard advice for cancer patients was to save energy and limit activity, and for cancer survivors to return to physical activity carefully and slowly. That’s probably still the advice for patients who, for whatever reason, experience shortness of breath, heart issues, or pain. But for those patients who don’t suffer completely debilitating side effects of treatment, new research reveals that exercise can not only make cancer patients and survivors feel better, it can make treatment more effective and it can reduce the amount of time needed to recover when active treatment ends.
Other studies show that exercise may even prevent cancer or reduce the risk of recurrence.
If you’re exhausted and feel like a worn out dishrag, the last thing you probably want to do is run off to do an hour on the treadmill. But you don’t have to turn into what my husband and I call a “Spandex Nazi.” Some activity is always better than none.
I’ve been active most of my life, though not at the Spandex Nazi level. I’ve always jogged, hiked, cycled, dabbled in racquetball, surfing and skiing. But cancer treatment completely wore me out. I didn’t feel up to really strenuous exercise.
Luckily, my oncology hospital offered free consultations with a personal trainer. She encouraged me to just walk, as long as I could, every day. So after I’d drop my kid off from school, I’d hike up a ridge in a county park just down the road. It’s about a mile and a half of pretty steep climbing. But I loved the feeling of accomplishment when I got to the top and was rewarded with a stunning view. Sometimes, I’d hike along the ridge for a while, sometimes, I’d go straight back down.
I treasured this hour or two each day. It was just me, my dog and nature. It did make me remember the good things in life, it did keep my muscles toned and my cardiovascular system active. As treatment progressed, I got too weak to make it to the top, but I still went. And the view was still good halfway up. And I think I felt better than I would have if I hadn’t done the daily hike.
The key, according to the Oncology Nursing Society, is to develop an exercise plan that is specifically for you. Every cancer is different. Every treatment is different. Every person is different. Ask your doctor. Ask if your hospital offers exercise consultations. Ask if local gyms have a program for cancer patients (many do).
But whether you’re a cancer patient, or a survivor, it’s a good idea to just get moving.
What exercise have you managed to do during treatment, or after? Let us know here.