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Exercise for Cancer Survivors

How Physical Activity Can Help You Manage Side Effects

by Ting-Ting Kuo, PT, DPT, MS, CLT

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Stiffness. Pain. Fatigue. Do these common side effects sound familiar? The majority of people coping with cancer today will at some point experience side effects that are a direct result of cancer and cancer treatment. Overnight, simple tasks such as reaching overhead, putting on a shirt, washing your hair, or carrying a bag of groceries suddenly can become a challenge. So what is the secret to minimizing and alleviating many of these side effects? Yes, you guessed it … exercise.

Often, surgery to remove a cancer can lead to symptoms of stiffness, tightness, swelling, and pain. Likewise, nausea, treatment-related fatigue, and numbness and tingling of the hands and feet may accompany a chemotherapy regimen. If a person requires radiation therapy, skin and tissue damage may result in radiation burns, which can lead to further loss in flexibility and overall mobility.

Exercise has been shown to reduce, and in some instances eliminate, these commonly experienced side effects while also increasing strength, coordination, posture, and immune function and building and maintaining bone, muscle, and joint health. Improvements in mood and post-surgical healing, along with a decreased risk in falls, are additional benefits of exercise that allow individuals to optimally function throughout the day and to improve their quality of life during and after cancer treatment.

The key is to find exercises that are appealing and enjoyable and that can be easily incorporated into a daily or weekly schedule.

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Dr. Ting-Ting Kuo

So how do you start? First, let’s define the term exercise. Exercise in relation to cancer rehabilitation can refer to any purposeful physical activity ranging from stretching, walking, and gardening to weight training, yoga, and bicycling. The key to initiating and increasing your activity level to the recommended 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity, five to seven times a week, is to find exercises that are appealing and enjoyable and that can be easily incorporated into a daily or weekly schedule.

You must be realistic about your current level of physical fitness to avoid potential injury and excessive fatigue. Exercises should be implemented on a gradual, progressive basis. Keep in mind that more is not always better. Setting short-term and long-term goals can be beneficial. These goals should be measurable (for example, by distance, duration, or frequency) and have a time frame (for example, two weeks or one month). Goals provide not only a strong sense of motivation but also an amazing feeling of accomplishment when a goal is achieved and a new one is created.

For those who may feel understandably overwhelmed with the idea of participating in an exercise program while undergoing cancer treatment, there are simple actions you can incorporate throughout the day to make exercise less daunting while still achieving positive benefits:

  • Walk continuously for 10 to 15 minutes every day.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Park the car farther away and enjoy the walk.
  • Get on the bus several stops away from where you normally board, or get off the bus several stops away from your destination.
  • Find an exercise buddy.
  • Schedule your exercise time as a standing appointment.

The benefits of exercise have long been established in the management of cancer. A gradual progression of exercise incorporating flexibility, strength training, and aerobic activity can help alleviate common side effects that often accompany cancer treatments. Whether you are just beginning or are in the middle of an exercise program, it is important to consult with your healthcare team about any guidelines or precautions they may want you to follow.

Should you have concerns about starting an exercise program safely, be proactive and request an evaluation by a physical therapist specializing in oncology rehabilitation. He or she can assist in implementing a safe and effective exercise program individually tailored to your specific needs.

Now is the time to start moving, get motivated, be consistent, and just have fun!

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Dr. Ting-Ting Kuo is a physical therapist specializing in the treatment of cancer survivors. A certifi ed lymphedema therapist with a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, she manages the Outpatient Physical Therapy Cancer Rehabilitation, Lymphedema, and Women’s Health Program at NYU Langone/Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine (www.ruskinstitute.org) in New York, NY.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2009.