By Gretchin Bade
Program Director of Oncology
Hartford Hospital Rehabilitation Network
At least 20 studies of people with breast, colorectal, prostate and ovarian cancer have suggested that physically active cancer survivors have a lower risk of cancer recurrence and improved survival compared to survivors who are inactive.
Exercise also has been shown to decrease the side effects of cancer treatments and can aid in recovery following chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Physical activity is also associated with improved weight management and with a lower risk of several chronic diseases, including Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which are common conditions found in people who have survived cancer. Physical activity has also been linked to improvements in psychological health outcomes for cancer survivors, in reducing cancer-related fatigue and increasing muscle strength that aids in decreased fall risk and ultimately improved ability to perform daily activities.
According to the American Cancer Society, people treated for cancer in the past were often told by their healthcare team to rest and to decrease their physical activity. Newer research has shown that exercise is not only safe during cancer treatment, but that it also can improve your daily function and your quality of life.
Too much rest can cause loss of body function, decreased flexibility and muscle weakness. Many cancer care teams are therefore recommending that their patients be as physically active as possible during cancer treatment and continue into survivorship.
Your goals of an exercise program will vary depending on where you are in your cancer journey. During treatment it is important to remain physically active, but each person’s exercise program should be based on what is safe and works best for them. The goal is to stay as active as possible but to be aware of safety concerns and to modify your program accordingly. Be sure to get your doctor’s approval before beginning an exercise program. You may also benefit from working with a physical or occupational therapist, an exercise physiologist, or a cancer exercise specialist. Healthcare professionals who are specially trained in cancer care can put together an exercise program that is safe and meets your needs.
After treatment some of the side effects will resolve quickly but some can last longer and may even emerge later. You should slowly increase your exercise time and intensity but need to listen to your body and pace yourself as needed. The American Cancer Society recommends moderate physical activity which is defined as an activity that takes as much effort as a brisk walk.
Physical activity continues to be important after cancer treatment when you are disease-free or stable. The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors be sure to follow these guidelines:
• Participate in regular physical activity.
• Avoid inactivity and return to normal daily activities as soon as you can after diagnosis.
• Work up to exercising at least 150 minutes per week (moderate physical activity), with exercise at least 5 days per week.
• Strength training exercises at least two days per week (begin with a supervised program).
Remember to speak with your healthcare team regarding the importance of participating in daily physical activity as they can make an appropriate referral. Be patient as you may need to exercise less intensely and progress your workout at a slower rate than someone who hasn’t had cancer. In time you will find the right balance and be able to make physical activity part of your lifestyle.
For more information on the Hartford HealthCare Rehabilitation Network, click here.