Exercising with, and after, cancer: why it matters

The big picture

Exercising after cancer can save lives. Evidence shows that it can reduce breast, bowel and prostate cancer mortality by up to 40%. Exercise also reduces the risk of recurrence and can reduce disease progression. Lots of people who’ve had cancer, or are living with it, don’t know this.

What it feels like to have had cancer

For many there are long term health issues, often from the effects of treatment rather than the cancer itself. 60% of people who’ve had cancer say they have unmet physical and psychological needs. If you’ve been through it, you’ll know:

  • fatigue
  • depression, anxiety,
  • excessive weight loss or gain, body image problems
  • pain, nerve damage
  • reduced bone density
  • swelling and lymphaodema
  • hot flushes and night sweats.

Evidence shows that exercise can help manage all of these.

The benefits are well documented, and becoming wider spread

In cardiac care, getting fit is a routine part of recovery and rehabilitation. Patients are referred to specialist-led fitness classes. Exercise may well become the fourth mode of treatment, offered to all and there are trials underway looking at this. ‘If physical exercise were a drug, it would be hitting the headlines.’  Professor Jane Maher, Macmillan Cancer Support Chief Medical Officer.

Yes, that’s all very well, but I’m exhausted

Fatigue in cancer survivors is significant – up to 95% report it, but it’s very hard to motivate yourself when you’re drained, even though it’ll probably make you feel better. Please don’t feel overwhelmed – start with little and often, and don’t let the need to exercise become a stressor. Be regular but take it easy on a ‘down’ day. Gradually work towards being out of puff and warm for 30 minutes. If you’re experiencing fatigue, work at 70% of your maximum heart rate.

It’ll help to sort your head out

There are many psychological advantages from taking regular exercise – it helps overcome depression, anxiety, weariness.

Restores appetite and promotes good sleep. Exercising outdoors can add further beneficial dimensions.

Endorphins leave you with a happy glow – racing 10k can look like this…


Muscular strength, bone density, shoulder mobility and lymphaodema

If you’ve been out of action for a while, the chances are you’ll have lost some of muscular strength – this can be why simply climbing the stairs feels harder than ever. Some of the hormones used in cancer treatment are linked to lowered bone density. There is specific evidence that exercise, when performed with good technique, can help to rebuild strength, restore upper body mobility and strength, and to help prevent and manage lymphaodema and loss of bone density.

  • Train your body – learn really good technique
  • Exercise on your feet to protect your bones
  • Use light resistance at first, but do work up to lifting weights

Help through transition

It’s hard to get back to work.  Of those diagnosed, half are of working age, but cancer survivors are 1.4 times more likely to be out of work than average. Exercise increases return to work rates. It can also help you to get back to normal, and to feel more like yourself.

Copyright  copyright Carolyn Garritt

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