Stay Strong and Carry On in 2023 - Exercise Tips for Before, During, and After Breast Cancer
Whenever the new year rolls around there is no surprise that one of the most popular resolutions is to exercise. If you are at the beginning of your breast cancer journey, in the middle of it, or just coming out of it, there is no reason that movement can’t be one of your resolutions, too! In fact, studies are beginning to show that exercise could help breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy reduce fatigue and have a better quality of life.
The team at Pink Hub has put together some tips about exercise for before, during, and after breast cancer:
- Exercise and breast cancer prevention:
When it comes to risk factors for breast cancer, there’s a lot we cannot change. Family history, age at our first period, whether we had a pregnancy, and our breastfeeding situation are some examples of things beyond our control. However, exercise, may be one of those modifiable risk factors that we can do something about. The literature on the cancer preventing properties of breast cancer is not very strong, but it is worth noting that studies have shown a correlation between physical activity levels and occurrence of breast cancer. According to the CDC, being physically active lowers your risk for developing several commonly occurring cancers, including breast cancer. While there is some research on the primary preventive benefits of exercise on breast cancer (i.e. exercise helping to make sure you don’t get BC in the first place), there is a ton of research on the secondary preventative abilities (i.e. you had breast cancer, and now you want to make sure you don’t get a recurrence). Why is exercise such a great idea?
- Exercise during chemotherapy:
Women who are going through breast cancer treatments have a higher tendency to develop osteoporosis, decreased bone mineral density (osteopenia), decreased muscle strength and also tend to have decreased cardiovascular fitness. Exercise, both in the form of strength and cardiovascular training, can help with all the above. This is important, because loss of muscle mass has been found to be associated with higher mortality and decreased quality of life, mostly because of pain and fatigue. How is this for a reason to ask your doctor if exercise is right for you?
If you were not particularly physically active prior to your diagnosis, fear not: it is not too late. A clinical study published in the medical journal, Breast Cancer Research, looked at the benefits of exercise in women who were previously physically inactive and exercised less than 1-hour per week on average. When these women were assigned a moderate exercise regimen for three hours per week for 16 weeks, all the above health parameters improved. We strongly recommend that you speak with your doctor before starting any kind of exercise routine!
Now, we realize that this is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, and swimming can help with cancer related fatigue, but if you are fatigued, it is hard to get up and get moving. We suggest starting low and going slow. First, make sure your doctor approves of you exercising, and ask him what kind of exercises are beneficial for you. Also ask if there is a limit that you should not push your heart rate above/ You may want to start by walking to the mailbox and back, maybe a couple times if you are up for it. If you have neuropathy and are worried about falling, you may also want to consider a stationary bike- recumbent bikes are great, and there are even some portable ones you can use while sitting in a chair.
Exercise might even help with one of the peskier side effects of chemotherapy: the dreaded brain fog. The research is unfortunately not 100% on this, but there is plenty of evidence that cardiovascular exercise combined with resistance training improves cognition in adults, so it is worth considering!
Most women lack guidance on how to get back into exercise safely and have concerns regarding the safety of exercising. But there is help. Many women are screened by physical therapists during their active treatments, specifically after undergoing a mastectomy (more on the shoulder issues surrounding mastectomies here), but few are referred to ongoing therapy after their treatments conclude.
There are physical and occupational therapists who are specifically certified in breast cancer rehabilitation. Ask your doctor if you would benefit from a referral. There are also rehabilitation doctors, Physiatrists (not Psychiatrists!) who focus on the medical rehabilitation of cancer survivors. Many large cancer centers are affiliated with a rehabilitation team of doctors and therapists, and you can ask your medical provider team for a referral, when they deem this to be safe for you.
- Getting in shape after chemotherapy:
Once you’ve gone through treatment, you’ll probably be eager to get back to good health as a cancer survivor. The recommendations for cancer survivors are no different from those for anyone who wants improved health. Exercise, eat a balanced diet, maintain a healthy weight, get good sleep, reduce stress, avoid tobacco and limit the amount of alcohol you drink. These simple steps can improve your quality of life helping transition into being a survivor.