Exercise and cancer treatment – what patients need to know post-diagnosis
If you or someone you love has recently been diagnosed with cancer, or if you are undergoing treatment, then you understand just how important it is to take good care of yourself.
Over the years, there have been a number of studies that have focused on the best ways to take care of yourself post-diagnosis, including diet and group therapy sessions, but one of the most well-known ways is through regular, physical exercise.[¹]
In fact, research indicates that moderate levels of exercise post-diagnosis or during treatment have no harmful side effects on patients. Instead, studies suggest it actually has many benefits, including reduced fatigue, which continues to be a primary physical and mental challenge for patients undergoing treatment.
Why is Exercise Important?
Though a wealth of research regarding exercise and cancer focuses on cancer prevention, recent years have seen a number of studies geared towards the effectiveness of physical activity for those battling cancer. Since then, research has uncovered a host of medical benefits, including four key areas that tend to challenge cancer patients the most: [³]
- Fatigue: Research points to reduced fatigue as one of the key benefits of exercise during cancer treatment. In fact, studies indicate that those who engage in regular exercise experience 40% to 50% less fatigue over the course of their treatment.
- Muscles and Joints: Regular exercise not only increases muscle strength – it also helps to improve joint flexibility and your body’s overall conditioning, some (or all) of which may be impaired in the wake of surgery or other related therapies. Additionally, regular physical activity has been linked to improved overall cardiovascular function, and can help protect bones.
- Weight Control: Exercise has been proven to help patients control weight – a critical factor in any cancer treatment. In fact, many studies show that any weight gain during or post-treatment can raise the risk of cancer returning.
- Mental Wellness: Participating in regular physical activity has also been tied to improved mental wellness among cancer patients, an area where many struggle greatly. By elevating mood, exercise offers patients a drug-free outlet for those battling feelings of anxiety or depression, helping to maintain a higher level of mental wellness.
Additionally, exercise after a cancer diagnosis has been linked to improved self-esteem, stronger social skills, greater feelings of independence and an overall greater quality of life, all of which can be invaluable to those undergoing treatment.
Choosing Exercise That Works For You
However, it is important to keep in mind that exercise needs to be compatible with your body and your treatment program, since each patient experiences their own physical, emotional and psychological limitations. Certain things may affect a patient’s ability to participate in physical activity, such as:
- The stage and type of cancer you have been diagnosed with
- The intensity of your cancer treatment
- Your overall stamina, strength and fitness levels
As a result, it is imperative, before beginning any exercise program or activity routine, that patients consult with their cancer care team, to determine what (if any) limitations should be placed on physical activity. Because many patients are prescribed medications with physical and mental side effects, it can sometimes be difficult to grasp their own potential or capabilities when it comes to physical activity. 
Additionally, patients need to find a program that works for them on a comfort level. Though some may prefer to seek out group exercise or other complimentary physical therapies, many patients may choose to opt for a program that allows them to stay close to home. Activities like walking, jogging, cycling or swimming are but some of the ways that patients can engage in physical activity close to home, without the added costs of travel or other programs.[⁶]
Regardless of whether or not a patient opts for group or at-home physical activity, it is important to implement a program that targets the various areas of the body, many of which are essential to your overall physical health. According to Cancer Council Victoria, the best exercise programs focus on patients receiving roughly 30 minutes per day of exercise, with a rotation that emphasizes:[⁷]
- Aerobic exercise
- Flexibility exercise
- Resistance exercise
Do I Need to Take Precautions?
Although the benefits of exercise during cancer therapies are numerous, it is equally important for patients to take precautions to protect their overall health and welfare. Depending on a diagnosis or treatment program, organs like the lungs or heart may need to be considered, especially when prescribed medications that may affect their overall function. It is also for patients to take precautions regarding:[⁸]
- Blood counts:Have your cancer care team check these before engaging in any regular exercise and do not exercise if you are experiencing a low red blood cell count, as is the case with anemia. Additionally, patients with low white blood cell counts, or those prescribed medications that affect the body’s ability to fight infection, should avoid public gyms or other public venues.
- Radiation treatment:Those undergoing radiation therapy should avoid exposing skin in and around the treatment area to certain elements, like chlorine in swimming pools.
- Bleeding:Those taking blood thinners can experience issues with bleeding, and should avoid situations that risk falls or other injury. Indicators like swelling, dizziness, pain or blurred vision should prompt a call to your primary care doctor or oncologist.
- Catheters or Feeding Tubes:It is important to avoid bodies of water, like lakes, pools, the ocean or other elements that could cause severe infection. It is also important to avoid too much physical activity in the area where the catheter or tube is located, in order to avoid dislodging it.
Any symptoms that cause concern, such as shortness of breath, swollen ankles, unexplained weight gain, unrelieved nausea or vomiting, or continuous pain should halt any and all exercise until you can consult with your cancer care team.
Where Can I Find More Information?
If you are looking for more information regarding how physical therapies or exercise programs may affect your cancer treatment, the latest information can be attained from your resident Cancer Council.
Cancer Council Helpline 13 11 20
The information contained in this article is intended for informational purposes only. Pancare does not recommend engaging in any exercise program without consulting your general practitioner, oncologist or the remainder of your cancer care team.
Exercise and Cancer Treatment – What Patients Need to Know Post-Diagnosis
- National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Exercising During Cancer Treatment, https://www.nccn.org/patients/resources/life_with_cancer/exercise.aspx(May 18, 2016).
- American Cancer Society, Physical Activity and the Cancer Patient,http://www.cancer.org/treatment/survivorshipduringandaftertreatment/stayingactive/physical-activity-and-the-cancer-patient (May 17, 2016).
- Julie Grisham, “What are the benefits of exercise during and after cancer treatment?” Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Jan. 2, 2014 (https://www.mskcc.org/blog/what-are-benefits-exercise-during-and-after-treatment)
- Cancer Council Australia, Exercise, http://www.cancervic.org.au/living-with-cancer/exercise (May 18, 2016).
- Cancer Council Australia, Exercise tips for those with cancer, http://www.cancervic.org.au/living-with-cancer/exercise/exercise-tips (May 18, 2016).
Further Reading – References & Resources