Exercise for Cancer Survivors: Getting Your Life, and Your Body, Back After Treatment

Our weekly Get Fit blog: The latest news, trends, research, and workout tips
August 26, 2008

I tend to think of this weekly fitness blog as being for people who are, well, fit. I take for granted the fact that I’m healthy, active, and able to do things like run and swim without a second thought. But a New York Times article this week reminded me that for people who aren’t so lucky—those who are being treated for or are recovering from cancer—fitness is just as important, if not more. As specialized exercise classes spring up around the country and doctors increasingly encourage their patients to get moving, it’s becoming clear that fitness should be a part of any cancer recovery plan.

Sami Papacek, a personal trainer and certified cancer exercise specialist, agrees. Papacek teaches a four-week recovery class in Kansas City that helps cancer patients to regain control of their lives after treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. She also moderates a fitness forum on the breast cancer survivors network, Pink-Link.org, where she answers questions about everything from chemo-related fatigue to posttreatment weight gain.

“With a little bit of exercise every day, people can really get their lives back,” Papacek tells me. “Maybe a breast cancer patient has a mastectomy and then reconstruction, for example. Those muscles are so tight and weak, exercise can help her relearn something as simple as picking up a bag of groceries and putting them on the top shelf in the kitchen. And it can give her back the energy and endurance she needs to take the kids to school.”

Exercise can help cancer patients battle depression and fatigue, because it produces natural endorphins that make us feel good. It can help counteract muscle atrophy that’s accelerated during chemotherapy, radiation, and sedentary recovery time. And it can give people the confidence that their lives—and their bodies—can return to normal.

For many people who haven’t worked out in years, any type of exercise can be daunting—especially during or after cancer treatment, when their bodies are in such a vulnerable position. “But these patients also usually have a heightened awareness about taking care of their bodies now,” Papacek says. “I like to recruit them early, during or right after treatment, and capitalize on that awareness. They know they’ve got a second chance, and they want to do it right.”

Start slowly with just 5 or 10 minutes of walking a day, up and down your stairs or around the block, if you can handle it. Add a minute or two every few days, so you feel slightly challenged but still comfortable; the goal is to work your way up to 20 minutes a day. It may be hard to take that initial step, but try it for a few minutes and see how your body feels. You may be surprised at how much energy you really have.

Adding thin resistance bands or small dumbbells (or even a set of soup cans) to your daily regimen can help you get your strength back faster; plus, they’re cheap and easy to use at home. Gardening is a great activity too, because it encourages people to move around and use different muscles.

The most important thing to remember, says Papacek, is that a little exercise can work wonders—but overdoing it is the worst thing you can do. Always get clearance from your physician and make sure you’ve taken the proper precautions; patients who have had lymph nodes removed, for example, may need compression sleeves to protect against swelling. And if you’re considering joining a gym or a local cancer survivors’ fitness class, be sure the instructors are certified to work with cancer patients. (A limited list of instructors can be found at TheCancerSpecialist.com.)

Share these tips with a cancer survivor you love, or let me know what you think: Has exercise helped you get your life back after an illness? What challenges stood in your way, and how have you worked to overcome them? For more inspiration, see how these breast cancer survivors have faced life after treatment.

By Amanda MacMillan

(PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO)

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