Your Body: Your Ally

Exercise can be a huge benefit for breast cancer survivors.

The notion that a woman with breast cancer has to take it easy and limit her activities is being replaced by a new, more accurate image—a physically active participant in her own recovery.

Focus article photo

Even moderate exercise such as walking in the neighborhood for 10 minutes at a time can make a great difference in breast cancer recovery.

Research shows that the impact of physical exercise and therapy on cancer survival, especially breast cancer, is substantial.

Charlene Gates is a physical therapist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and a clinical affiliate of Norris Cotton Cancer Center, working with cancer survivors. She says the goal of her PT program for cancer patients is simple: "We want people to get back to their life."

Exercise and cancer: two routes

She points out that at the intersection of cancer and exercise, there are two routes to take, depending on what's the most appropriate treatment at the time. Therapeutic exercise addresses what Charlene calls "impairments" – loss of strength due to chemotherapy and other treatments, loss of a range of motion (frequent for breast cancer survivors), and so forth. Physical activity exercise aims to improve overall health. "Over the past few years, there's been a lot of research about the benefits of moderate exercise for cancer patients," she says. "The immune system gets fired up by exercise. In fact, the benefits of moderate exercise go beyond just breast cancer to include just about all cancers."

More than the immune system is positively affected by exercise. Since the human body is built to be active, almost everything about it improves with even moderate exercise. Muscles become toned, blood circulation improves, lungs take in more oxygen – every benefit that exercise provides for fully healthy people is also provided for cancer survivors.

"Moderate" is the key word in terms of exercise. Physical activity for breast cancer patients and breast cancer survivors needn't involve a membership to the Gung-Ho Triathlete Gym just down the street. Moderate, explains Charlene, means any exercise the increases the heart and breathing rates but allows someone to continue talking. Done in 10-minute increments, a week's worth of moderate exercise should total about 150 minutes. Cancer survivors can meet their goal for moderate exercise by gardening, golfing, just walking around the neighborhood.

Cutting risk of mortality from cancer in half

A recent review article published in the Journal of Cancer Surgery noted that of 12 studies specifically addressing the effect of physical activity on breast cancer survival, "eight showed a statistically significant 50% risk reduction in breast cancer mortality in women who engaged in moderate intensity physical activity before and after their diagnosis of breast cancer." The article goes on to emphasize that the "positive effects of physical activity were seen for all stages of cancer... By adding physical activity to the spectrum of adjuvant therapies offered to women, survival from breast cancer may be enhanced."

The benefits of exercise for cancer patients and survivors have even caught the attention of the American College of Sports Medicine, which has established exercise guidelines for cancer survivors. (The American Cancer Society has created similar guidelines.) These highly detailed guidelines emphasize the increasing need for physical therapists specifically trained to rehabilitate cancer survivors. "A sizeable percentage of the population of cancer survivors, nearly 12 million strong and growing, stand to benefit from well-designed exercise programming led by increasingly well-educated and well-informed fitness professionals," the guidelines state.

Getting your body on your side

Charlene points out that many people tend to slow down right after they are first diagnosed with cancer. "It's natural. You think, I'm really, really sick,'" she says. "But this is exactly when you need to bring everything your body can deliver to your treatment. Exercise is one of the best ways to get your body working for you rather than against you. You can make your body your ally."

Many survivors of breast cancer have a risk of developing osteoporosis, she notes, which is why she likes to encourage two to three sessions per week of "resistive" exercise—weights, isometrics, etc. She cautions, however, not to try weights without receiving some training first. "It's really important to learn how to properly lift weights," she comments, "even light weights."

A diagnosis of cancer pushes many people into a general reassessment of their life. It's always a time of change. "If we could get all the benefits of exercise in a pill, of course we would all take it," laughs Charlene. "But we can't. However, the benefits of exercise are all still right there, just by exercising. It's never too late. It doesn't have to be hard. And it could make a huge difference in your recovery."

Get hands-on tips about exercising after breast cancer in this video.

August 27, 2012