It’s hard enough to exercise when you are feeling your best. It’s even harder when you are not. But, for breast cancer survivors, both those undergoing and those who have finished treatment, exercise can be an important part of treatment and staying well. Some doctors find exercise so powerful that they recommend it as a treatment itself.
You’ve likely heard that exercise is a great way to improve your everyday life. Exercise has been shown to boost energy and improve sleep. Endorphins, a chemical released during exercise, can even reduce your perception of pain. While these benefits are useful for everyone, they are particularly valuable for those going through breast cancer.
Similarly, exercise can help you cope with the depression and stress that sometimes spike during a serious illness. Specifically for those undergoing chemotherapy, some studies show that exercise eases nausea. And those receiving radiation treatments often find that exercising reduces fatigue.
If feeling better in the short term isn’t enough to get you going, you should know that exercise may reduce the risk of reoccurrence of breast cancer and improve survival. While we don’t know for sure all of the reasons that exercise keeps cancer at bay, there are a few that are well documented.
Being overweight or obese has been shown to increase risk for recurrence of breast cancer and the risk of dying from it. Exercise also helps women lose weight or keep weight off. Simple as that.
On the chemical level, exercise lowers the amount of insulin and a hormone-like substance called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Lower levels relate to lower risk of both first-time and reoccurring breast cancer.
Finally, some women are prescribed hormone therapy to reduce the risk of reoccurrence, but the medication sometimes causes joint pain and muscle aches. Remember those endorphins? They can help reduce pain, which makes it easier to stick with the medication. This can improve their prognosis significantly.
All of this may make exercise sound like the perfect solution. While its effects are on par with a miracle drug, breast cancer survivors still need to be careful.
Be sure to get recommendations from your doctor or surgeon before starting an exercise program, especially if you have had breast cancer surgery. Breast surgery can increase risk of lymphedema, swelling of the soft tissues of the arm, hand, trunk, or breast that may be accompanied by numbness, discomfort, and sometimes infection.
Try activities to which you can add arm movements only very gradually. Any weight-bearing or resistance activities with your arms should be introduced in small increments over plenty of time. Your doctor can provide recommendations that might be right for you.
If you are taking a fitness class, be sure that the instructor knows you are a survivor. He or she can recommend adjustments to the activities offered, so you can participate safely. Whether you are exercising in a class or on your own, whether you’ve had breast cancer surgery or not, start and progress slowly, rest as needed, and stop if you feel pain.
Matthew Vernon, MD, is radiation oncologist and medical director of the Cancer Center at SVMC. SVHC will have a team of more than 40 employees running in the Komen Race for the Cure on July 22. For news and updates from SVHC, follow facebook.com/svmedicalcenter.