Exercising During and After Cancer Treatment
Treatment for cancer can make regular exercise a challenge. Side effects from treatment, including being tired, losing your appetite, digestive changes, and irregular sleep patterns can sap your energy and curb will to exercise each day.
Despite the challenges, regular exercise can help you feel physically and emotionally better during and after cancer treatment. In addition, some research suggests that being active may increase odds for long-term survival from cancer.1 That’s because exercise can improve cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, bone density, and balance/flexibility – benefits that can help reduce side effects of cancer treatment such as heart problems, muscular problems, bone loss, and fractures/breaks from falling. In addition, regular exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight during and after cancer treatment. It also can help guard against health-related depression, which can be common in people who are navigating or recovering from cancer treatment.
Partnering With Your Doctor and Cancer Team is Key to Exercise Success Although studies show exercise is safe for many people who have been or who are being treated for cancer, it’s important to talk with your doctor and the members of your cancer team before resuming a previous or beginning a new exercise routine. Your doctor and cancer team can identify types of exercise that are best for you. They also can help set reasonable expectations about how often, how long, and how vigorously you should exercise. Your cancer team will develop an exercise plan with consideration for your fitness level, physical limitations, and what you enjoy.
In addition, your doctor and cancer team can answer questions about exercising during and after cancer treatment. They can address issues that might arise with exercise. For example, if you’re feeling less energetic than usual or weak, your doctor and cancer team can modify your exercise plan to accommodate physical changes you’re experiencing. If you’re feeling emotionally discouraged, they can guide you to experts who can help you work through your feelings.
Exercising during and after cancer treatment can help:
- Maintain and improve overall fitness, including
- Improve and maintain bone mass and balance and reduce risk of falls
and resulting sprains/strains, fractures, and broken bones
- Reduce risk of heart disease and cardiovascular problems, including
maintaining good blood flow and reducing risk of blood clots
- Reduce fatigue
- Reduce nausea and other digestive problems
- Improve and maintain weight
- Reduce anxiety and depression and promote well-being
- Maintain personal independence and sociability
- Improve self-esteem and overall quality of life
Exercising During Cancer Treatment
If you exercised regularly before and want to continue exercising as you did before diagnosis, first discuss your program with your doctor and cancer team. They are likely to encourage you to proceed with caution and regularly check back with them with any changes you may experience or concerns. If your doctor and cancer team tell you to postpone exercise during cancer treatment, only begin exercising again with their permission.
Rather than pushing your fitness during cancer treatment,
the goal is to maintain a fitness program
as your circumstances and treatment allow.
If you did not exercise before cancer treatment, start slowly and gradually increase your pace and the time you spend exercising. Walking is ideal if you are starting to exercise for the first time. Begin by walking short intervals of 5-to-10 minutes or less on a flat surface at a moderate pace. With permission from your doctor, you may increase the length of time and pace you walk as your fitness improves.
Experienced and inexperienced exercisers
who are being or have been treated for cancer
should exercise with consideration for bone loss (osteoporosis),
joint problems (arthritis), and numbness / tingling in the hands and feet
from reduced blood circulation (peripheral neuropathy).
If you feel weak or unstable, ask a friend or caregiver to help you exercise. In addition to helping stabilize you, having company while you exercise can make the activity more fun. If you prefer exercising in a gym, enlist the services of a personal fitness trainer or physical therapist with expertise in cancer recovery to help you exercise safely and effectively.
Throughout and after cancer treatment,
keep your doctor and cancer team aware of your activities and goals
as well as the physical and emotional changes
you experience during and after exercising.
Exercising After Cancer Treatment
Some people experience side effects after as well as during cancer treatment. In many cases, side effects from cancer treatment subside within a few weeks. But in some people, symptoms may last longer or occur later. For example, some cancer treatments, including certain chemotherapies and radiation therapy to the chest, can affect the lungs and heart. Ask your doctor and cancer team about possible physical changes you may experience as a result of your treatment. Knowing what to expect can help you better manage ups and downs that can accompany cancer treatment.
Exercising After or With Stable Cancer
After cancer treatment, staying physically active has benefits for your overall health, quality of life, and longevity. Research shows, for example, that maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active may help reduce the risk of other cancers and chronic diseases.2
The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors
return to normal activities as soon as possible after diagnosis
and engage in regular physical activity, including exercising
at least 150 minutes per week (30 minutes per day, 5 days per week)
and strength training at least 2 times per week.3
Exercising With Advanced Cancer
If you have advanced cancer, physical activity may help enhance your quality of life. Talk with your doctor and cancer team if you have advanced cancer and want to continue being active. In addition to recommending the level of activity that’s appropriate for you given the type of cancer you have as well as your physical abilities and limits, your physician and cancer team can help you manage other health problems as a result of cancer.
Whatever the stage of cancer or treatment,
stop exercising and talk with your doctor
if you have a rapid heart rate, pain, or shortness of breath.
Tips for exercising during and after cancer treatment:
- Establish short- and long-term goals
- Focus on reducing emotional and physical stress
- Choose pleasurable activities
- Ask for help when you need it
- Adapt exercise to accommodate physical changes
- Track your progress, knowing that exercising may be difficult on some days
- Rest when you need it
The goal of exercising during and after cancer treatment is to stay physically and emotionally strong so that you may continue or eventually resume your normal activities.
What matters most is to be as active as possible each day.
In partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center,
Summit Medical Group offers comprehensive cancer care
for all types and stages of cancer.
1. Florin TA, Fryer GE, Weitzman M, et al. Physical inactivity in adult survivors of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia: a report from the childhood cancer survivor study. Cancer Epidemiol Prev. 2007. 16(7):1356-1363.
2. Romaguera D, Gracia-Lavedan E, Molinuevo A, et al. Adherence to nutrition-based cancer prevention guidelines and breast, prostate and colorectal cancer risk in the MCC-Spain case-control study. Int J Cancer. 2017. Doi: 10.1002/ijc.30722. [Epub ahead of print]. Accessed May 5, 2017.
3. American Cancer Society Prevention and Early Detection Guidelines. Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines For Cancer Survivors 2012. cancer.org/health-care-professionals/american-cancer-society-prevention-early-detection-guidelines/nupa-guidelines-for-cancer-survivors.html. Accessed May 5, 2017.