What's the New Prescription for Cancer Survivors? Exercise.

Exercise during and after cancer treatment is shown to increase quality of life in cancer patients.

exercising in parkExercising in the park photo via Shutterstock

A cancer diagnosis is devastating for anyone, regardless of age, type, or severity. The road to recovery is often a long and painful one, resulting in both physical and emotional stress. During and after treatment cancer patients often feel sick, fatigued, and depressed. As a result the tendency is to rest more and move less. But being sedentary can often do more harm than good for patients. Because of this, doctors are prescribing exercise now more than ever as part of their patients’ cancer treatment plans.

According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise can improve the quality of life in cancer patients, both during and after treatment. Those who start or continue an exercise program after initial diagnosis tend to live longer, cancer-free lives than those who remain inactive. The American Cancer Society’s says that physical activity can hasten recovery and may reduce the risk of recurrence and increase survival, which further supports the theory that exercise plays a significant role in turning patients into survivors.

Besides increasing longevity, minimizing side effects of treatment, and improving quality of life, there are three other benefits of exercising during and after cancer treatment:

1. Correct or prevent postural deviations

After surgery, survivors are vulnerable to developing postural deviations. In the case of a mastectomy there is likely to be a buildup of scar tissue and adhesions that cause pain and tension around the chest area. This limits range of motion at the shoulder joint causing muscle imbalances. Over time, the patient’s shoulder(s) will start to round forward. With the right amount of flexibility and strength training, postural deviations such as rounded shoulder syndrome can be corrected.

2. Manage weight and body composition

A cancer survivor may gain or lose weight, depending on the treatments used. Chemotherapy often causes nausea, fatigue, and emotional stress which are all factors that might cause someone to lose weight. Survivors not only lose fat, but also muscle mass and bone density, which increases the chances of developing osteoporosis. A manageable strength training program will help offset this risk by rebuilding lean muscle mass.

3. Prevent the onset of lymphodema

A cancer patient who’s had lymph nodes removed or undergone radiation therapy is at high risk for lymphodema (a swelling in the arms or legs, caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system). Besides wearing a compression sleeve and avoiding excessive heat, therapeutic exercises, often referred to as drainage exercises, can prevent a lymphatic obstruction, which can lead to swelling of the affected area.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that patients and survivors get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity. However, it is important to remember that each individual has different needs based upon the type of cancer and the severity of the situation. It is going to take time to build up strength, and improve flexibility and cardiovascular fitness, regardless of how fit they were prior to the diagnosis. After obtaining medical clearance from a clinician, a patient should start small and progress slowly. A cancer exercise specialist will assess posture, flexibility, strength, and range of motion to determine the appropriate fitness program for the survivor. — Kristen Mercier

Kristen Mercier is a cancer exercise specialist, personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and full time manager of the Corpbasics Fitness and Training Club in Somerville. You can read more on her personal blog, Be Fit With Kristen.