Exercising After Breast Cancer: Moving Toward Health

By Friedrich, M. J.

No matter what type of treatment you have for breast cancer, it can take a toll on both your body and emotions. The effects of the disease and treatment often cause women to become less active, more stressed, and unable to sleep well. And the worse you feel, the more inactive you tend to become. As a result, you may lack the strength and stamina to continue or resume the roles and activities you carried out before your cancer diagnosis.

What can you do to gain strength and feel healthier and more like yourself again? Many find that regular exercise can improve their fitness level as well as their mental outlook.

In addition, women who undertake an exercise program can help speed their recovery from cancer, says Victoria Mock, DNSc, RN, AOCN, FAAN. Mock is director of the Center for Nursing Research at Johns Hopkins University and director of nursing research at the Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore. While breast cancer can make women feel as though their body has failed them, exercise can help them regain some control over their body and their life.

Benefits and Precautions

Exercise offers many benefits to breast-cancer survivors as well as to women who are undergoing treatment. Exercise can help by doing these things.

  • Increase your fitness, which can help you return to your daily activities more quickly

  • Provide a sense of well-being, self-esteem, and positive mood

  • Improve your ability to sleep

  • Reduce the side effects from treatment, such as fatigue

Before starting an exercise program, get a checkup from your doctor, says Mock. Those who have finished treatment and have no underlying health issues or major side effects from treatment usually can follow an exercise program of their choice.

Women who are having treatment for breast cancer, however, should consult with an exercise expert and check with their doctor before proceeding, advises Mock. This is because many cancer therapies can weaken the body--in some cases, they can even affect the heart. If this is the case for you, you may need to follow a modified exercise routine that takes your physical condition and type of treatment into account.

Many cancer centers have healthcare professionals in their departments of physical therapy or physical medicine and rehabilitation who work with people with cancer, says Mock. They can discuss options with people with cancer and design a safe program for them to follow. If you're in treatment and interested in exercising, ask your doctor or health plan to refer you to one of these experts.

Getting Started

Starting to exercise gradually is a good idea, says Mock, especially for anyone who was not in shape before her diagnosis. She advises that people try to exercise almost every day--even if only for 5 to 10 minutes. That helps you get in the habit of working out in some fashion. Working up to exercising 30 minutes a day is a good goal because that length of time provides benefits for everyone, she says. But, she adds, "measurable benefits are seen with lesser amounts of regular exercise, especially for folks who were formerly sedentary."

Walking, bicycling, or aquatic exercises are good aerobic options. Walking is a natural and easy choice, says Mock, as it can be done anywhere at almost any time. Finding an exercise that you like is the key to sticking with it.

Women should also consider strength training, says Mock. Lifting weights can help keep bones and muscles strong, especially after menopause. Some have expressed concerns that this type of exercise might worsen certain conditions linked with breast cancer, such as lymphedema. It is a side effect that involves swelling in the arm from buildup of lymph fluid on the side of the breast cancer. But Mock says that a recent study in women with this condition showed that strength training did not make lymphedema worse. Still, it is always a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before starting any exercise program.

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