Life After Cancer: Exercise

By Annie Berger Sep 13, 2016

Physicians and other healthcare providers have been saying it for years: exercise is good for you. Period. However, it can be difficult to find an exercise program that you not only enjoy, but can fit into your busy schedule. Add a cancer diagnosis on top of that, and it can seem nearly impossible. After completion of treatment with surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation, a cancer patient has a unique set of characteristics, both physical and emotional, that play a significant role in development of an exercise program. You may have lingering side effects from your treatment that affect things like balance, strength, shortness of breath or lymphedema (swelling). You may be worried about finances and the extra costs that can come with joining a gym or purchasing special equipment. You may be simply trying to get your schedule back to normal.

Whatever it is, here are some tips and tricks to start incorporating exercise into your daily routine as you recover from cancer treatment:

  • Before you start any type of exercise program, be sure to discuss this topic with your oncologist, particularly if you are having trouble with treatment-related side effects as mentioned above. They can determine your risk for any negative events or effects that exercise may have on your body and may refer you to someone who specializes in creating exercise programs for cancer patients.
  • Start slow! Regardless of the type of cancer or the treatments you received, you will likely be unable to perform at the level you were at before your diagnosis. Start with a small goal, such as 10 minutes of walking or 5 repetitions of body weight exercises such as squats, lunges, or push-ups. Slowly increase your time or reps as you feel stronger, whether it’s weekly or even monthly.
  • Set goals, and make sure your goals are realistic. One of the biggest reasons people are unable to stick with exercise programs is because they set their expectations far too high and essentially set themselves up to fail. Set both short-term and long-term goals, and discuss these with your healthcare provider to ensure you are being realistic. For example, a short-term goal may be, “In 3 months I will be able to walk for 20 minutes straight without stopping,” or, “In 1 month I will be able to raise my hand above my head.” You can set many short term goals that can help you accomplish long-term goals. A long-term goal might be, “In one year I would like to walk a 5K race that raises money for breast cancer research with my family,” or, “In 9 months I would like to be able to do 20 regular push-ups in a row.”
  • Find something you enjoy doing, and that you can fit into your schedule. For example, I personally know that if I do not exercise in the morning, there is a 99.9% chance that I will not exercise when I get home after work. While the snooze button gets the best of me some days, if I lay my gym clothing out next to the bed and place my alarm somewhere I can’t reach it, I don’t miss my workout and perform better at work because I am more alert and energized. I know that I personally do not enjoy swimming, so training for a triathlon or planning to use the pool at the gym to work out is not going to motivate me. I also do not like lifting weights at the gym in front of others, so I choose to do workout videos at home that are very motivating and that I enjoy doing. Whatever you choose to do, you will benefit your body in many ways as you recover from cancer and move on through your survivorship journey.
  • Find little ways to add exercise or activity into your day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park towards the back of the parking lot to walk into the store instead of taking the first space you can find. If you typically watch TV at the end of the day, do some basic exercises during the commercials, such as walking in place, sit-ups, or jumping jacks.
  • Most importantly, be patient with yourself and give yourself plenty of grace. You’ve got this!