What It’s Really Like to Exercise After Breast Cancer

What It's Really Like to Exercise After Breast Cancer

A breast cancer diagnosis may set back your fitness routine, but it’s only temporary. Get back in shape! Strength training is just one exercise option after breast cancer.

“I was very active before breast cancer. I enjoyed hiking, biking, personal training, water and snow skiing, tennis, horseback riding, you name it!” says Elizabeth Dyer, a cancer survivor. “I worked out throughout my chemo and radiation, and after my double mastectomy I started running the local trails.”

It used to be that following lymph node removal or a mastectomy, women were not encouraged to exercise. Not the case anymore. Women like Dyer are changing the portrait of the breast cancer survivor.

“The research shows that women should try to stay as active as possible before, during, and after their treatment. So they don’t have to start exercising after treatment. Even during treatment, they can use a pedometer, track their steps, and try to stay active,” says Julie Silver, MD, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

Why exercise?

Exercise following breast cancer can be a great way to boost a woman’s mood, enhance independence, maintain a healthy weight—which may have increased during treatment—and increase energy levels, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

Those benefits can increase self-esteem, something that may have taken a beating during treatment. Not only that, but exercise can also improve overall quality of life and, most importantly, reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence, according to a 2008 study.

“Any little bit of exercise made me feel better, stronger, and more in control of my own healing,” says Dyer. For her, exercise was both a mental and physical boost during her cancer journey.

Getting enough exercise can be tough, and for women who have experienced surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy, it can be even harder. After getting the go-ahead from a doctor, survivors may be ready to exercise, but they may not know where to start. Here are some best bets for restarting a fitness regimen.

Strength training

Working out with weights will help increase overall strength, and can help increase bone density, something very important for women who have undergone adjuvant aromatase inhibitor therapy. These drugs help postmenopausal women with early stage hormone receptor-positive breast cancer, but can also result in loss of bone mass.

“Women should focus on regaining upper body strength and regaining shoulder range of motion,” says Silver. After surgery, the shoulder can get very stiff and immobile. Some of the best ways to get back into strength training include:

Body weight exercises

Use the body to do the moving and lifting. Examples include push-ups on the wall or floor, burpees, shoulder circles, and dips.

Weightlifting

Use hand-held weights or machines. Working the entire body rather than focusing on one area of the body is important, but again, certain areas of the body will need more attention. Examples include lat pull-downs, chest presses, and pull-ups.

It is imperative that women are cleared for exercise by their health care practitioner before embarking on a weight-lifting regimen, says Silver. She recommends that women first see a physical therapist, followed by a personal trainer to create a tailored exercise program.

Cardiovascular exercise

Walking, jogging, or running—these activities are all part of a sound cardiovascular program.

The Canadian Cancer Society suggests that women start back slowly. It is best to begin with walking, as it is one of the easiest ways to stay active.

Running is also a wonderful way to decrease stress, lower body weight that may have been gained during treatment, and regain some of the cardiovascular endurance that was possibly lost. If running was a pastime, start back with walking and slowly build back up to a quicker pace.

There is no timeline on when to start back with a running program; women should listen to their bodies and see how they feel.

Teresa Clarke, MD and director of outreach services at InspireHealth in Vancouver, encourages breast cancer survivors to get as much cardiovascular exercise as possible. She says that the benefits have been confirmed by studies that show three to five hours of cardio a week at a brisk walking pace can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence.

As well, Clarke encourages women to exercise outdoors during the sunny months as much as possible. “Vitamin D is an anticancer vitamin,” she says, so it’s important to get as much as you can from the sun when it’s available.

Dyer agrees; she enjoys exercising outdoors. “I run the trails a few times a week; being out in nature and exercising is not only good for the body, but also for the soul,” she says.

Stretching

With surgery, other complications may arise such as stiffness, scar tissue, and loss of strength and mobility. Stretching can help to alleviate these issues in the shoulder, an area that gets very tight and static following removal of lymph nodes or breast tissue.

Clarke recommends gentle stretching of the shoulder, and says, “Stretching is specific to each person. It depends on their nutritional levels, scar tissue, and different degrees of surgery.” Here are some simple shoulder stretches that you can try.

Door Frame Stretch

  • Place your hand on a door frame, reaching as high as you can, and straighten the arm.
  • Gently step forward until there is a stretch in the shoulder.
  • Hold for 30 seconds and repeat up to 3 times on each side.

Hand Clasp Stretch

  • Reach both hands behind back and clasp hands together while pushing the arms back as far as they’ll go.
  • Hold for 30 seconds and repeat up to 3 times.

Yoga and Pilates

Silver says, “Yoga and Pilates are both excellent ways to exercise, and they’re also fun.” Like any other form of exercise, make sure to get a health care practitioner’s clearance before beginning. Start with gentle exercises and slowly work up to the more difficult upper body exercises. Here are some gentle exercises to begin with.

Simple Supported Back Bend

  • Lie flat on your back with one or two pillows below your shoulder blades.
  • Stretch arms straight out to your side at chest level.

Double Arm Lift

  • Lying on your back, stretch both arms above your head.
  • Then bring arms back toward the sides of your body.
  • Repeat up to 15 times.

Getting back into a fitness program following breast cancer, or any other type of cancer, can seem like a daunting task, and some days it may be. Just remember that exercise is a wonderful way to release stress, something that anyone who has gone through cancer will have experience with. As well, every bit of activity helps to increase health and to decrease the chance of cancer coming back.

Each day is a new day to get stronger and healthier, leaving cancer behind.

Coming back after cancer

If you are starting a fitness program after treatment for any type of cancer, please consult your health care practitioner, physical therapist, or exercise specialist for advice on the best exercises and fitness routine to get you back in fighting form—safely.

Eat clean

Your nutrition may have varied during your treatment; now it’s time to get back on track. Try to follow these strategies:

  • Follow Canada’s Food Guide or consult a nutritionist for personalized nutrition planning.
  • Eat a protein-rich diet to build up atrophied muscle.
  • Limit alcohol, as it adds calories and can interfere with medication.
  • Ask your health care practitioner about taking herbal supplements; some may interfere with breast cancer medications.
  • Listen to your body; eat when you’re hungry.

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