Once considered a supplement to recovery post treatment, there is now strong evidence that suggests all women diagnosed with breast cancer should be prescribed an exercise program as an adjunct to traditional treatment.
Regular exercise can improve the general quality of life for patients in treatment and offers the greatest potential to help counteract the side effects of particular therapies.
Along with the general improvements to muscle quality and strength, exercise offers specific benefits to women with breast cancer. It can;
- Counteract cancer related fatigue and nausea.
- Improve range of motion and function after surgery.
- Reduce the risk of developing lymphedema.
- Help prevent weight gain common with hormone therapy.
- Help relieve stress associated with depression and anxiety.
Prior research has shown that exercise post treatment is associated with higher survival rates and decreased recurrence. Early research on women who exercise during treatment has also indicated that these women were better able to tolerate their chemotherapy than their sedentary counterparts.
This is beneficial for women at every stage of their treatment. Exercise is all about quality of life and improved health outcomes. Even in the middle of chemotherapy, patients can still benefit from and experience improvements in their fitness and may be the only factor they can “control.” This additional control is physically and psychologically empowering, a welcome attribute during challenging times.
General exercise recommendations for people undergoing cancer treatment is to participate in low-to-moderate intensity activity 3-5 times per week. However, being general recommendations only, patients should work closely with their health care professionals to know their limits and work within their boundaries.
There are some key limitations and considerations that you must be aware of when exercising during treatment.
- Heighten levels of fatigue. Many women report a lack of energy, especially on treatment days. Take this into consideration and modify your program accordingly.
- Chemotherapy agents can affect heart function and reduce the amount of blood being pumped. This results in a decreased supply of oxygenated blood, leading to breathlessness and fatigue. If this happens, slow down and reevaluate your exercise appropriateness at the time.
- Chemotherapy can also effect cognitive function, making it difficult to remember what you’ve done from sessions to session, therefore charting and logging progress is essential.
- Radiation or surgery may limit range of motion. Work with a licensed practitioner to improve pain free range of motion and normal joint mobility.
- Focus on balance. Chemotherapy and radiation scarring can reduce or cause a loss of feeling in the hands and feet especially. This can effect balance, postural awareness and the ability to perform certain exercises. Be prepared with back up or modified exercises in case your session needs to be modified.
While many factors are often out of our control, our decision to create positive health effects is not. There is never a bad time to start an exercise program and reap the benefits.