Can cancer patients exercise when going through cancer treatment?

exercise Mar 05, 2021

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The term ‘exercise’ covers a multitude of things, from short, gentle walks to intense strength and cardio workouts. The general rule is that exercise is good for you, but whether you’re suffering from a common cold or are going through chemotherapy, we all know that when you are not feeling well it’s important to be gentle with yourself as well. Exercise feeds into the wider discussion around a range of wellbeing practices that provide benefits during cancer treatment, and the tangible impact they can have.

There is a lot of information on how and why exercise can help to prevent certain types of cancer, and most of us are aware of this to a greater or lesser extent. We have always advocated for recognition of wellbeing practices for anyone experiencing cancer to support overall health and quality of life. That applies to complementary therapies that can help to reduce anxiety or alleviate some of the side effects of cancer treatment such as nausea or stress, as well as skincare routines that are part of a meditative routine and that also have benefits such as addressing issues caused by chemotherapy and radiotherapy. For example, itchy skin or brittle nails. More research has been done into the recognised benefits of this type of support, including a study by the NIH, which concluded:

“This study highlights the importance of optimism and social support in the QOL [quality of life] of patients with advanced cancer. As such, interventions that attend to patients’ expectations for positive experiences and the expansion of social support should be the focus of future clinical and research endeavours.”

With this in mind, when it comes to exercise for those going through cancer treatment, what is the advice?

Benefits of exercise during cancer treatment

Cancer Research UK says that research has shown that there is strong evidence that certain ways of being active can help people with cancer:

  • Reduce anxiety
  • Improve depression
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Improve quality of life during and after cancer treatment
  • Prevent or improve lymphoedema (a type of swelling caused by treatment to lymph nodes)
  • Improve general physical functioning

Equally, the Mayo Clinic is extremely positive about the beneficial effects of exercise during cancer treatment, encouraging patients to maintain a routine.

In one article, they wrote: “when researchers reviewed 61 studies involving women with stage 2 breast cancer, they found that a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise was not only safe, it also improved health outcomes.”

They recommend 150 minutes of exercise a week, or as much as you can manage towards that goal. They suggest that includes ‘some kind of resistance training (weightlifting, resistance bands) at least twice a week’, stretching, balance exercises, and things from your normal routine. They do however highlight that you should speak to your doctor first to get the green light on any activity, relating to your personal circumstances.

In broad terms, for anyone with, being treated for or recovering from cancer, the general advice is that some physical activity is a good thing, both in terms of building strength, boosting your mood and supporting overall fitness.

When is exercise not recommended during cancer treatment?

There are certain situations where exercise needs to be approached with caution during cancer treatment.

For example:

  • If you have a cancer that affects your bones you may be at higher risk of breaks and fractures, so swimming, yoga or other practices that support the body might be preferable.
  • Some cancer therapies affect your immunity, in this instance using a swimming pool or public gym might not be advisable during certain periods of treatment.
  • Peripheral neuropathy is experienced by some people during cancer treatment (a loss of sensation or pins and needles in the hands and feet), which may make an exercise bike safer than road cycling, for example.
  • After any type of surgery there is usually a period of time that you will be advised not to exercise in order to let the body recover.

Importantly, lots of cancer treatments and cancer itself, may make you simply feel like you don’t have the energy to exercise, which is completely understandable. It’s often recommended that if that’s the case, just a few minutes walking around the house, garden or outside, three or four times a day, is a good idea.

Whatever an individual does, it’s important to take time to acknowledge that achievement. If it’s a climb up the stairs that they couldn’t do last week or that first kilometre jog post-treatment, the journey through and beyond cancer is personal, and there’s no one way to do it.

Remember, this is very broad information. Whether you are a therapist discussing wellbeing with a client who is going through cancer or a cancer patient yourself, it’s important that you listen to your own body and also speak to a medical professional about your personal circumstances if you have any queries around exercise during and after your treatment.

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