Exercise During Cancer: Getting Started

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by Nancy Campbell, MS

“How soon can I start exercising after I start cancer treatment?” It’s a question I hear often from patients who visit me for a fitness consult or class at Dana-Farber.

My answer? “As soon as possible.”

While it may seem counterintuitive, exercise offers key benefits for cancer patients – even those undergoing difficult treatments. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to give yourself an extra boost during and after cancer treatment.

Physical activity helps lower your stress, improve your sleep patterns, and elevate your mood. Something as simple as walking briskly around the block a few times can help you feel better both physically and emotionally. And, because exercise can help ensure you get a good night’s sleep, it helps combat fatigue – a common complaint among those undergoing cancer treatment.

Exercise physiologist Nancy Campbell holds classes for cancer patients.

Creating a fitness routine doesn’t need to involve a dramatic change. In fact, adding exercise to your daily routine can be simple, especially if you focus on small steps to make your day more active.

Here are some tips for getting started.

Check with your doctor. Make sure your exercise plan won’t interfere with your treatment or recovery. For example, if you’ve had surgery, it may take some time for wounds to heal before you should start exercising. Or, if you’re experiencing lymphedema (swelling) as a result of lymph node removal or treatment, you’ll want to make sure your exercise plan won’t make the swelling worse.

After you get signoff from your health care team, consider what exercise types might work best for you. Some options to consider:

  • Flexibility exercises, such as yoga or stretching. No matter what your treatment regimen, it’s likely that you can find a flexibility exercise that will work for you. Maintaining your mobility can help ensure that you’ll be ready to move on to more vigorous exercise.
  • Aerobic exercise, such as running, swimming, or brisk walks. Aerobic exercise is key because it helps you burn calories and lose weight. It also builds cardiovascular fitness, which can lower your risk of health problems like heart attack and diabetes. If you have balance problems, try exercises that are less likely to make you fall, such as riding a stationary bicycle.
  • Resistance exercises, such as lifting weights. These can help build muscle, which is helpful because it’s not uncommon for people to lose muscle (and add fat) during cancer treatment.

Ideally, your routine should include both aerobic and resistance exercises, because these will help you build muscle and increase your stamina, which can help improve your overall health.

No matter what types of exercise you decide to pursue, be sensible. Know your limits, and start out slowly. Short bouts of physical activity on most days of the week are more beneficial than the occasional exhausting workout. Build up your strength and endurance little by little. In the beginning, regularity is the key.

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. She’s previously written about exercise tips for cancer patients and survivors.

13 comments

  1. Berenice Ronthal says:

    I had not had a routine excercise regimen for several years prior to my diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent to the chemo, radiation and surgery I began to put on weight. I had been told about the value of execise as a factor in preventing a recurrence of the breast cancer but felt completely overwhelmed by the idea of where to begin, who to go to, what the appropriate excercise regimen would be for me. My breast oncologist connected me with Nancy Campbell and this program and I am enormously grateful. Not only do I feel better and stronger and motivated, but also I look forward to the discipline of engaging in a balanced regimen of exercises at least twice a week under the guidance of someone I can trust. This is an important and very valuable program and I am very grateful indeed to Dana-Farber’s Adult Survivorship program under whose auspices this program falls.
    Berenice Ronthal

  2. Rita McDonough says:

    Life is meant for living, with or without cancer. Living with cancer can be a bit challenging; however, I can truthfully say that having been privileged to take advantage of the fabulous exercise program offered at Dana-Farber, my life has been so much better! Exercise, under the guidance of an amazing cancer exercise specialist who sets the tone and continually offers assistance has been the perfect prescription for climbing that sometimes very steep hill back to physical and mental health~it is truly amazing. I believe that we all feel much better with increased flexibility, strength and energy, and you cannot possibly be exercising and feel depressed at the same time. The camaraderie is also a wonderful bonus!

    I cannot thank Dana-Farber enough for offering this program; I feel very privileged to be a part of it. I would encourage other patients, with the approval of their physician, to at least give it a try~I suspect that you will be as thrilled as we all are.

  3. Quiltmaker says:

    I feel fortunate to be able to participate in the exercise component of DFCI’s Adult Survivorship program. I’ve been treated for lung cancer so it has been especially helpful for me to be in a program which strenthens my muscles and enhances my flexibility because I can go about my everyday activities with less strain on my lungs.

    The class is a supportive environment where we are encouraged to do the best we can and there are no criticisms of our shortcomings. Even though we are each on our own journey there is a camraderie amongst the class members which I find to be an added plus.

  4. Toni says:

    I’m never quite sure if my stomach is sore from the exercises we do in class or from the laughter that accompanies the workout. Everyone knows the general benefits of exercise and the particular benefit of excercise to cancer survivors but the benefit of exercising with other survivors with an experienced and specialized exercise physiologist–that is news that needs to be shared!

  5. Diane Brown says:

    Dana Farber’s Women’s Exercise Class led by Nancy Campbell is excellent, fun and challenging. The class members are friendly and inspiring. The atmosphere is comfortable and pleasant. I have strengthened my muscles, increased my circulation & increased my flexibility in spite of my limitations. I have more energy after classes and am more inclined to do additional exercise. It’s a wonderful healthy program.

  6. Maria Norma Aguilar says:

    In the past, I used to excercise for many different reasons, but fortunately today, I have the knowledge and commitment that I exercise to stay healthy.
    It is a completely new understanding what exercise does to my life today. Every time that I go to class, provided by the DFCI program, I feel and learn something new. Before, I used to stay in the gym for many hours without gaining much result. The difference with today is the experience and the guidance that I have. Every step, every move, has a reason…a purpose. I can stretch more flexibly, I have greater strength, and I have more balance; I am healthier. To remain still without the privilege to exercise is simply to give up in the fight to recovery. Movement is the key to our long life journey and survival.

  7. T says:

    I used to do a lot of exercise even during my first pregnancy. With a second child I almost completely stopped. After my diagnosis of breast cancer, I can not stop moving. I feel so good. I am just privileged and fortunate to be part of this program under the guidance of a professional Exercise physiologist decided to get the best of us. humbly thank you!

  8. Laura says:

    When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in June of 2011 I was in pretty good shape. In addition to all the physical limitations I experienced following my diagnosis, my body image was seriously impacted. Going to an exercise class without hair and staring at myself in a full-length mirror was something I just could not work up the strength to do.

    Then I met Nancy Campbell and started attending her exercise class for female cancer survivors. I can’t even express how much this class has helped me–both physically and emotionally. The class helps me push myself in ways that I know I wouldn’t if I weren’t under the guidance of an experienced and compassionate exercise physiologist. I can see marked improvements in my strength, flexibility, balance, and stamina.

    The women in the class are inspirations to me and so much fun to spend time with. I can’t thank Dana-Farber enough for offering this program.

  9. Maureen Costello says:

    I have been a patient at Dana Farber since 1990 and have survived brain and anal cancers and experienced several hip implants. While I have always walked and done yoga my last hip surgery seemed a major setback. My participation in Nancy’s FREE exercise program is slowly returning me to normalcy. A very affirming atmosphere led by Nancy and very qualified interns offers all us the chance to move with gentle exercises, yoga, Pilates and the support of fellow patients. This class is a gift and I am very grateful that Dana Farber offers it to our community. Thank you so much!

  10. Sabrina Abruzzese says:

    Exercise, unto itself, is so important to overall health & wellbeing but even more so with a cancer diagnosis. Not only has the Dana Farber Women’s Exercise program helped me improve my strength, flexibility & overall stamina, it has given me another tool to help in my fight against cancer. Nancy Campbell does such a great job running the classes each week. She is very knowledgeable, encouraging & always mindful of the challenges and/or limitations each student in the class may have. But equally as important, she keeps the classes fresh & fun! The group of women in the classes are amazing; each with our own unique story but all sharing a common goal. This is truly a “no judgement zone” where we all work within our at our own level & ability.

    I really look forward to our weekly classes & always leave feeling physically & mentally stronger. Thank you for offering this program – I only wish there were more classes!

  11. V. says:

    I have survived a very aggressive surgery for breast cancer and the new normal is depressingly sad. When a join Nancy and my classmates, I become encouraged and happy. I laugh because I’m so clumpsy, I nearly fall off the step board and others are doing the same. We each take baby steps to recovery and without this class I would feel so alone. Thank you DFCI and Nancy for being there with your gracious help.

  12. Rachelle Moreland says:

    When i was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and had to have 3 surgies, two of them were rexcisions. I knew if I wanted to conquer Breast Cancer, I had to foucus on three things, first pray, stand on faith that I will beat cancer and lastly, surroudn myself with other cancer patients and learn as much as I can about the benefits of excersize in reducing recurrence, and reduce weight gain from the side effects of the medication I was taking. I was so grateful my physicians at Dana Farber listended to my concerns and suggested the excersise class. I have never felt so satisified that I can not only be around cancer patients of all races and ages but to reduce my weight gain and recurrance. Having the class made of cancer students like me that have been through such a dramatic ordeal and can manage to make each other smile,laugh and assit each other in our excersizes is such a rewarding experice. We have become a family who truly cares about each others health and day to day activites. Each friday I always wonder what new excerise are we going to do today. Nancy,and her team make us feel like individuals that can conqure not only our cancers but our new excersizes. I like that fact the each exercise we do, Nancy takes the time to explain the benefits of it, how each person can perfom it accoriding to their capabalities. Thank you Dana Farber, Physicians and Nancy for taking the time to listen, care and act on our concern regarding our cancer treatments, and how to alleviate the side effects of our medication ,and encouraging excercise as a way to reduce cancer occurance and motivate us not let cancer beat us..

  13. L. says:

    There are not enough good things to say about Nancy, this wonderful class, and the Dana Farber for offering it to patients. It is encouraging, motivating, health-promoting, and even fun. (I generally hate group exercise)

    It provides ongoing, predictable,mutual support that is readily available. It has helped to change my expectation that a cancer care center would be a place of dread to an expectation, fulfilled, of light and hope.

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