Five tips for exercising during (and after) cancer treatment

If you think a cancer diagnosis automatically means you’ll need to get plenty of bed rest and avoid activity, think again. A host of medical studies show that exercise can not only reduce the chances of developing cancer, it’s also safe during and after cancer treatment, helping improve quality of life, increase energy levels, and decrease the fatigue that many patients report.

Here are some tips for starting your own fitness routine, even if you’re facing the challenge of cancer.

1. Start smart. Cancer patients and survivors alike should check with their doctor before beginning a fitness routine. While exercise offers a wealth of beneficial effects, certain medications or treatments may affect the amount of physical activity your physician recommends.

2. Aim for experience. Once your doctor says you’re good to go, work with a fitness expert who has experience helping cancer patients and survivors develop a workout routine. In 2009, the American Cancer Society and the American College of Sports Medicine developed a special cancer-exercise certification for fitness professionals, so consider finding a trainer who holds such accreditation.

3. Know where to go. If you’re an adult cancer survivor, you may want to try the YMCA, which has teamed with the Livestrong organization to offer a 12-week exercise program for survivors in select communities nationwide. In the Boston area, cancer patients and survivors can turn to Dana-Farber for a no-cost exercise consultation for men and women, as well as weekly fitness classes for female patients.

4. Do what feels right. Tailor your routine to fit your specific cancer diagnosis and alter it depending on your interests – and on how you might feel when undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation. Gradually build your workout over time, and think about what types of exercise you most enjoy. For example, some people prefer to pursue a fitness routine on their own, while others may want the camaraderie of a group workout with other cancer patients and survivors.

5. Keep it up. Exercise can be immensely helpful after treatment, thanks to its ability to strengthen bones, reduce the risk of cancer recurrence, and help maintain a healthy weight. In fact, a new study in the British Medical Journal reveals that breast cancer patients who exercised regularly after treatment had a lower body mass index, improved weight and blood sugar control, and better lower limb strength, compared to those who didn’t exercise. The exercise participants also reported less depression and fatigue, and an improved quality of life.

The bottom line: Although the idea of pursuing an exercise routine during cancer treatment may sound daunting, it’s worth your time. Getting started doesn’t take much effort, and the benefits can be significant.

Nancy Campbell, MS, is an exercise physiologist who offers fitness consults and classes to cancer patients and survivors through Dana-Farber’s Adult Survivorship Program.


22 responses to “Five tips for exercising during (and after) cancer treatment

  1. I cannot agree more with what Nancy mentioned in the article. Cancer patients not only die with cancer recurrence. Exercising properly may prevent cancer recurrence, but also other diseases such as diabetes, heart attack and many joint problem etc. I really like Nancy’s approach with exercise program and how she teaches the class.

  2. Even while in the hospital for long periods of time, I’d walk the pods at BWH otherwise I’d go nuts! One Dr. told me that if I’d keep that up, that after ( bone marrow) transplant I’d “hit the ground running”. The women’s exercise program after treatment at DFCI was wonderful. Never any pressure. Tailored to everyone’s particular levels of capabilities. All in all, a very encouraging environment.

  3. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I cried. I then began planning. I was lucky to get an appointment at Dana Farber with two brilliant doctors. While in my initial appointment I was asked if I wanted to take part in a novel study. I signed up! I was then introduced to Nancy Campbell. We met twice a week in the gym where she guided me through an exercise routine. The remainder of the week I walked everyday for at least thirty minutes and sometimes up to fourty-five minutes. I wore a heart monitor and calculated all my progress. I am so thankful Dana Farber offered this study. Taking part in this study not only helped me become more healthy and prepare me for surgery but it lifted my spirit and helped me maintain a positive state of mind.

    The day after surgery I was up and walking. While in the hospital I was up walking every chance I got. It helped me feel better. After I left the hospital I began walking on the track in my town. I was walking a mile and a half a week out from surgery and since then up to three miles a day! Keeping my body moving has helped me heal faster and feel better quicker so much so I was able to return to work only six weeks after surgery. Doctors have also commented on how extraordinary my healing process has been. I am now looking forward to participating in DCFI after cancer exercise program with Nancy.

  4. Nancy Campbell’s Exercise class for Women Survivors was the true beginning of my recovery. The treatment did its job, of course, but exercising regularly with the advice of a professional and the camaraderie of other women survivors put me on a healing path. I live on Cape Cod, but during my treatment, I never missed Nancy’s class. The strength and empowerment I derived from the class and the women in it continue to live within me today. I exercise almost every day; I belong to a fitness studio where I dance, spin, and do yoga; I walk and ride my bike on the Cape Cod Rail Trail; and lift weights whenever I can. A few months ago, in the heart of winter and a weight gain, I made the trip to Dana Farber to visit Nancy for a pep talk. The pep talk worked. I highly recommend exercise that, as Nancy says in her article, you will enjoy. Dance or yoga? Do it! Walk or bike? Do it! Lift weights in front of the TV? Do it! I’m healthier now than I was before my diagnosis, which was two years ago yesterday. JUST DO IT.

  5. I remember my doctor (Ann Partridge) telling me during treatment, “I know you want to rest, but try to exercise when you can. It’s good for you and you’ll feel better.” After treatment I was lucky enough to participate in the DFCI Adult Survivorship Program, where I met Nancy Campbell. Nancy recommended an exercise routine tailored to my needs (including an arthritic knee). Later I joined her women’s exercise class, where, in addition to receiving individualized attention, patients and survivors get and stay fit in a room full of laughter and empathy. It was a huge help to me–both physically and mentally–after treatment.

  6. I received my diagnosis of breast cancer nine months ago. recently, as I prepared to move on from radiation therapy, Susan Riendau, my nurse at DFCI, made the suggestion that I contact Nancy Campbell for a consultation. Susan put it this way: “Nancy is really nice and she’ll answer your email in 5 minutes”. Susan was absolutely correct on both counts. I met with Nancy in order to get some advice on how to put exercise back in my life. I had always been physically active and, in the months during and after surgery, chemo, and radiation, I maintained, stopped, and then gradually resumed activities like going to the gym, walking, taking the stairs, etc. I looked forward to the “fresh start” that a consultation with an exercise physiologist would bring. In our meeting, Nancy shared with me evidence-based information regarding the benefit that vigorous exercise could bring to my future as a survivor. She confirmed that keeping my weight down and engaging in regular exercise could help reduce my likelihood of a recurrence. And, as a previous blogger pointed out, these habits are also likely to have a positive impact on my health, overall. Nonetheless, the icing on the cake was learning that Nancy taught an exercise class for cancer patients! It has been years since I have had the opportunity to participate in group fitness and I was so pleased to know this option would be available to me. I have attended just one class and it was like coming home. The welcome extended to me by the existing members was immediately reassuring. Working out with others is invigorating in a way that solo fitness routines just can’t equal. Solo routines are great but, in my experience, they don’t include the “fun” and energy that come naturally from the shared experience. It is also so helpful to have a teacher. Nancy is very adept at creating a supportive environment, with the just the right amount of challenge, and simulaneously addressing individual needs. And, small world that we live in, a neighbor and I met in class, neither of us having known that the other had become a member of this “cancer fellowship” that we have all, unexpectedly, joined.
    I am not quite ready to say that cancer has been a blessing in my life. But, surely, it has brought people like Nancy, and the members of her class, into my life and that has been a very good outcome.

  7. I was so pleased to learn that Dana-Farber and FitCorp teamed up to offer a stretch & strengthen class to women. Nancy’s class offers instruction, support and social interaction for those undergoing treatment and post treatment. Having the guidance of a trained professional (with a great sense of humor and the ability to remember everyone’s name and situation) made this an extremely positive and helpful experience!

  8. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I began a very successful 20 month treatment course. Early on, I learned of the Adult Survivorship program and was able to add exercise classes, either once or twice a week, into my schedule. I could workout before or after a scan or radiation. When I received my Fitcorp membership card and jumped on the stair climber, I knew I would be healthy again. I was able to use my medial “sabbatical” to lose weight and condition. This meant I could play tennis and take yoga classes while I was in treatment. I cannot say enough about how important this opportunity was for my wellness. I join others in applauding Nancy Campbell, Fitcorp, and those at DFCI who support the Survivorship program. When I am able to send my friend, who is in treatment now, to the program,I know I am helping them on their path to wellness.

  9. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in April 2010 and had to start chemo immediately to attempt to reduce the size of a tumor to make it operable. I was an avid runner and fitness prior to diagnosis and after 6 weeks of treatment and doing no exercise was feeling lethargic and muscles were looking like spaghetti. Through the Zakim Centre, I was introduced to Nancy Campbell and although her classes were advertised as for “survivors”, she kindly allowed me to become part of the program. I expected to be able to pick up from where I left off but after 6 weeks of chemo (weekly treatments) and doing nothing, I was certainly in a weakened state. Through advice from Nancy and attending her classes, I was able to slowly regain strength, to the point that when I had surgery on July 18, I was in much better shape, both physically and mentally! Two weeks after surgery, I was back in the gym with Nancy’s class and building back up to running while returning to the weekly chemo treatments. I returned to Bermuda (home) in September and although not up for marathons, in good shape to return to work.

    The benefits of exercise cannot be ignored….for me these were both during treatment, surviving major surgery and beyond. Nancy’s approach and the camaraderie among the group of incredible women are major factors. There could be 20 women in the room, all at different levels of treatment and fitness but everyone worked at their personal level with encouragement and often humor.

    I am still running every day and training 5 days a week. I ran a 5K race in February in 26’51” beating 60% of the field, many of whom were half my age! Not Olypmic standards, but very cool considering the year before. Sometimes I feel that I met Nancy “by accident” at the Zakim centre, but the fitness program definitely made me a “survivor”!

  10. Two years ago, towards the end of tx for breast cancer (and three breast surgeries) I met Nancy Campbell for a personal exercise therapy appointment at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. In Nancy and her program at Dana Farber and Fitcorp, I met a kind, caring and very knowledgeable soul! Not only did I find her very smart and professional, she is also personable and patient, taking the time to go over every question I had and spent some very quality time going over exercises that would help me in my physical recovery and further strengthen me as I healed in a manner that was safe for me. I attended her Friday exercise class at Fitcorp (also such a fun and wonderful support group!) and I highly recommend it to all of you reading this today! This group under Nancy’s guidance is balm for your body, mind and soul. Now two years later, almost to the date, I am still doing the same exercises Nancy taught me at Fitcorp, only now incorporated into my yoga routine every morning. It’s not the same as seeing Nancy weekly and being with such supportive and wonderful cancer patients and survivors, but she helped empower me in such a positive manner that I plan on continuing the good work she started in me for a very long time! If I didn’t live over an hour away I would attend her classes twice a week just to be in the atmosphere of healing that she provides. Thank you Nancy for keeping up such a great work for us all!

  11. I recently went through radiation and hormone treatment at DFCI for recurrent prostate cancer. I traveled from Southern California to Boston for this treatment. I found DFCI absolutely superb! It was inspiring to see a world class medical institution operating at full throttle.

    One of the superb things was Nancy Campbell. I have been exercising daily since 1972, running at least 5 miles, and lifting weights. Nancy, though, showed me various new techniques, as well as better ways of doing what I had been doing. We concentrated specifically on managing against the possible loss in muscle mass than can occur as a result of the hormone therapy. With Nancy’s help, I am stronger, more energetic, and more fit than ever before. I feel completely great! Thank you, Nancy Campbell. And thank you DFCI!

  12. I had the good fortune to meet Nancy Campbell at a lecture sponsored by the Women’s Lung Cancer Forum a couple of years ago. I was so impressed by what she had to say, I requested a consultation with her. Prior to lung cancer surgery, I had never formally exercised in my life. In my first meeting with her, Nancy gave me the tools and inspiration to embark on an individual, self-designed exercise program to fit my specific needs and physical limitations. Since then my exercise routine has become part of my everyday life. Most notably, my lung function has improved dramatically, my energy level has increased, and I feel better in general.

    I believe Nancy’s article succinctly addresses the questions a cancer patient may have in evaluating the worth of an individual/group exercise program and offers suggestions for reaping the myriad benefits of an exercise regimen, whatever form it takes.

  13. I was thrilled when Nancy reached out to me to share this great article. I was fortunate to participate in several of Nancy’s classes over at Fitcorp during parts of my treatment at DFCI.

    When I was diagnosed with T-cell Lymphoma in July 2006 at age 23, exercise played an essential role in my life. When it came time for treatment in January 2010 at age 26, I knew staying active would keep me both physically and mentally in check.

    Since cancer and treatment forced me to leave my job as a nurse, I embraced the opportunity to focus on keeping physically active and experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen. I jumped on the opportunity to learn golf, participate in a learn to row program with fellow cancer survivors, join Nancy’s group fitness class at Fitcorp, take yoga, run in some of my favorite scenic locations, bike ride outdoors, and cycle indoors on my spin bike.

    My workout routine varied throughout the course of treatment, which included two types of chemotherapy, one month of daily radiation, and allogenic stem cell transplant. Listening to my body was key. I definitely tested my limits once or twice, probably made myself stronger, but remembered to check in with my body more the next time around.

    By staying active daily, I found I had more energy, maintained a positive outlook on life, always had a great appetite, and overall felt strong and ready to tackle the next treatment phase. I may have been the only patient who personally requested a bicycle for my transplant stay – no shame in that!

    Thoughts I live by: Be active, Be well!

  14. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to meet Nancy Campbell and get involved in the Metastatic Breast Cancer program. As we get older and especially folks with cancer we all understand how beneficial exercise is. It was great to work with someone so educated about the process. Once I was diagnosed with Metastic Breast Cancer I really had no idea about how much and what type of exercise I should and should not be doing. I really want to thank the entire staff for helping me with the exercise program and moving forward with my life, I am confident that this program helped to extend my life. I would strongly encourage anyone to join this program if you have the opportunity; even if you don’t think it will be a benefit you will feel immediate results.
    This is a great group of people to have on your team.

  15. Chalk another one up for Nancy and the team at DFCI. For those of us who are in the “club”, experience, comprehension, coaching and compassion are defining characteristics of what to look for. The benefits of exercise and the program that Nancy tailors for you can not be underestimated. It is real. You feel better. You recover quicker. Not only in body, but in mind and spirit as well.

    I can’t express enough my appreciation for Nancy as I enter the rest of my life. Roger….upgraded to version 2.0!

  16. I have been participating in Exercise for Patients with Cancer since it was written about in Side by Side, a newsletter by and for patients and families. I am so happy to have found out about this FREE and convenient program. It is gentle, led at a very doable pace and you always FEEL BETTER afterward. The variety of exercises, the gentle guidance offered by Nancy and all instructors, the types of music and a fitting ending with yoga is so appreciated. Thank you all so very much for offering this program! It is so appreciated.

  17. Exercise has been a saving grace in a challenging experience. One year ago I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer that has spread to my bone – not a diagnosis anyone really wants. Dana-Farber has been wonderful in my treatment and I am doing very well. At the beginning I asked for advice on physical activity. I went to a physical therapist at Brigham and Women’s who really helped me understand what I could and could not do in terms of activity. I cannot play tackle football or bungie jump – I think I can live with that. There are motions that I need to be careful with to preserve the health of my vertebrae. My initial exercises were lovingly called “small whale twitching” exercises by my teenage children. But I did them. Gradually I felt stronger as I continued with my treatment and my exercise. Then I met Nancy and we further developed my program to include aerobic activities and even lifting weights. My progress has been slow but because of treatment I am now able to do more. I am even jogging. I have lost the extra weight that I have carried and my blood pressure has dropped so that I no longer have to take medication. I am healthier than I was a year ago.

    When I was diagnosed, I told my oncologist that I was in charge of the 98% of me that is healthy and I need his help on the small percentage of me that has cancer. Exercise allowed me to focus on the healthy part of me while assisting my body’s fight against cancer. I have said that I am making my own odds of survival. Truthfully, I do not have total control of this but exercise helps me make those wonderful odds I envision. In my most difficult moments in this last year, the times I was exercising were the only times I felt healthy. I would have an hour a day that I felt good about myself. Even if I was not doing something really impressive, my body felt good. Cancer made me feel so bad physically but exercise countered this because at least I was doing something and this gave me a healthy self-image. I have a health problem but it does not define even my overall health. Exercise gives me this viewpoint.

    Dana-Farber has been wonderful. Nancy is delightful, charming, and very helpful. She gave me direction and continues to work with me to develop an independent plan because I do not live near Boston. I am so thankful.

    Remember you are not alone and life has great joy!

  18. I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in early May and I had what I assume is the normal “this can’t be happening to me” and my initial emotions involved shock and fear. I was given a comprehensive guide to breast cancer at my local hospital. It helped me to become much more knowledgeable than I ever wanted to be about breast cancer and to understand the various treatment options as well as questions to ask my doctors.

    Early on with the encouragement from my extended family and friends

    1. OOPS -to continue – early on I made the decision to seek treatment at DFCI. One on the best decisions I ever made. At my first visit I was made aware of a clinical study regarding the benefits of pre-exercise in breast cancer patients. For several reasons I did not qualify for the study, but luckily I was put in contact with Nancy Campbell who met with me before my surgery.

      The reading I had done to understand my breast cancer made me feel more in control and gave me hope in the future with one exception. Almost everything I read about lymphedema led me to believe that I would forever be severely limited in what I could do with my right arm and fear that any exercise, bug bite or scratch would cause me to immediately incur this terrible fate.

      When I met with Nancy she helped me to understand the benefits of exercise both pre and post surgery as well as its benefits in helping to prevent lymphedema. I had begun an exercise program in the year before my diagnosis. She reviewed my then current exercise program and make suggestions for additional exercises prior to surgery. She also invited me to join the exercise class and I was able to attend a few times before my surgery in late June. This was a wonderfully enabling experience that I have been looking forward to rejoining.

      I recovered easily from my surgery. I believe the skill of my surgeons was the primary factor in this, but I also believe that the exercise leading up to surgery was also very beneficial. Post operative exercise has been limited to some stretching and walking, but now that my physician has told me that I can begin exercising again, I can’t wait to get back to Nancy’s class! THANK YOU

  19. How lucky I am! I first met Nancy Campbell at a forum for Young Women with Breast Cancer in 2010. As a speaker at the forum, Nancy discussed the importance of exercise for cancer recovery and as a vital tool to help prevent it from recurring. She also discussed an exercise study for breast cancer survivors and was looking for participants. Knowing inherently that exercise IS important, I asked to take part in this study. It was literally life-changing! While I was an active dragon-boat paddler in the summer months, the rest of the year I exercised spottily at best.

    That has now completely changed. Thanks to the study’s coach, Nancy’s encouragement and support, and a Livestrong program for cancer survivors at the West Roxbury YMCA, I now exercise year-round in some way. That includes walking, strength training and exercises for flexibility. As a result, I feel so much better. My health has improved, I have lost weight, I sleep better, I am stronger (emotionally and physically) and I have much more energy. And when I fall behind because of life’s “to-do’s, I can hear Nancy gently whispering in my ear, “Keep it up. This is so important for the rest of your life!”

    I am grateful to Nancy, to Dana-Farber and the West Roxbury YMCA for offering their tailored fitness programs for cancer survivors. Their continued encouragement and caring support help to keep me on the right track! I want to do everything I can to keep my cancer from coming back!

  20. There are numerous amounts of physical fitness exercises that you can do to improve your fitness level. Depending on what you want to accomplish, they can range from doing simple exercises that you may already be doing and require no special equipment to joining a fitness center and using more specialized equipment.

  21. These post have given me much inspiration to get started on an exercise program. I was just diagnosed 2 weeks ago with a pancoast tumor. I, like many before me, need chemo and radiation. As of right now, am unsure if surgery is an option due to the size of the tumor, but it doesn’t appear that it will be an option. That is ok, due to the positive information I have received on various websites, especially this one 🙂 and will add exercise into my daily routine. Thank you all for sharing your stories! God Bless!

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