How Exercise Can Help Your Recovery From Breast Cancer

awareness cancer design pink
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

Fiona McMahon PT, DPT

Have you noticed it yet? Everything is pink. Pink cups, pink pens, pink stickers, pink ribbons, pink everything. The flood of pink that happens every October and reminds us it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. If you are someone you love has or has had breast cancer, chances are you don’t need any reminding. At Beyond Basics Physical Therapy we have spent a good deal of our blogs discussing the ins and outs of how PT can help with the symptoms following treatment for breast cancer. But what can you do right now to help your health? Emerging research is pointing to the profound importance of exercise on so many facets of well being for individuals with breast cancer. In this blog we will discuss some of the newest findings as well as practical ways to apply these findings in your own life. I hope you choose to read on and please share this with family and friends.

What the researchers are finding:

We know that to say breast cancer treatment can be hard is an understatement. The risk of symptoms like fatigue, sarcopenia (muscle loss), osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive impairments are all elevated in individuals who are undergoing or have undergone treatment for breast cancer. These symptoms can have a profound impact on quality of life, which breast cancer survivors should not have to accept. Luckily in researching this blog, I found so many studies examining how to improve the quality of life of people going through breast cancer treatment. As a physical therapist, the studies on activity naturally piqued my interest.

Three of the studies I looked at examined how structured and monitored physical activity helped out people undergoing breast cancer treatment and those who had already undergone it. The studies included workout programs consisting of cardio, resistance training, or a combination of both. The studies showed improvements in fatigue, depression, physical fitness, and quality of life immediately following the exercise program. In one of the studies that look at how long these effects lasted, the positive benefits were lost 36 weeks after completing the exercise program.

How to use these findings:

It’s probably not groundbreaking journalism on my part to tell you that exercise is good for you. But what I do find compelling is the amount that good exercise can do, even during treatment. So the question is how to make exercise work for you. First get your doctor’s clearance for exercise, because there may be some exercises to avoid, especially if you have had a mastectomy. Most of the studies I looked at examined structured and monitored programs run by a physical therapist or other healthcare professional, which I would highly recommend especially if you are not used to exercising. A skilled physical fitness professional, like a physical therapist or Pilates instructor can not only help you progress safely through different exercises, but they can also introduce you to fun exercises you may have never thought of. That said, the best exercise is the one you will actually do. Remember, the benefits of exercise will be lost if you aren’t consistent. Cancer treatment can often feel like a full time job and adding another appointment into the mix is often not very practical. The good news is that in the study by Gokal and colleagues, walking independently for 30 minutes 5 times a week reduced self reported cognitive failures in participants. So even if you can’t make it out to see someone, there still is a lot of good you can do for yourself on your own.

Practical tips:

  1. Start slow: be kind to you body and ease yourself back into exercise. “Chunking” or breaking exercise into smaller sessions is a great way to start
  2. Spark Joy: (Shout out to Marie Kondo) but exercise should not be something you dread the thought of. If yoga, or walking makes you wanna crawl under a rock and hide, it’s not for you and that’s okay. Approach exercise curiously and you will find one you love, or at the very least, don’t hate.
  3. Buddy up: in the spirit of sparking joy, having an exercise buddy will not only help you remain accountable, it will probably make the experience a heck of a lot more fun.
  4. Get help when you need it: If you are a brand new exerciser, are in pain, or just feel like your routine is getting stale, see a fitness professional. It’s a short term investment that will pay dividends in the future by making exercise more comfortable and fun.

Keep positive, keep moving and if you have any questions, give us a call!

Dieli- Conwright C, Courneya K, Demark-Wahnefried W, et al. Aerobic and resistance exercise improves physical fitness, bone health, and quality of life in overweight and obese breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial. Breast Cancer Research. 2018; 20 1:24

Gokal K, Munir F, Ahmed S, et al. Does walking protect against decline in cognitive function among breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy? Results from a small randomised controlled trial. PLOS ONE. 2018

Penttinen H, Utriainen M, Kellokumpu-Lehtinen P, et al. Effectiveness of a 12 – month Exercise Intervention on Physical Activity and Quality of Life of Breast Cancer Survivors; Five- year Results of the Brex- study. In Vivo. 2019. 33:881-888

Witlox L, Hiensch A, Velthuis M, et al. Four -year effects of exercise on fatigue and physical activity in patients with cancer. BMC Medicine. 2018; 16:86