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Keep Your Body Moving through Cancer

by Tara A. Albrecht, PhD, ACNP-BC, RN

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Regular physical activity is routinely recommended – if not prescribed – as a means to promote a healthy lifestyle as well as to prevent and manage such chronic diseases as diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and cancer. Not only has regular physical activity been found to help prevent and manage disease, it is also known to improve mood, increase energy, and promote more restful sleep. Thus, incorporating regular physical activity into daily life provides many potential benefits.

While cancer is often considered a chronic disease, advancements in screening and treatment have led to improved prognosis. This means that there has been a steady increase in the number of cancer survivors over the past few decades. Unfortunately, this also means that many more people are now living with common disease- and treatment-related side effects, which may persist long after treatment has ended. These side effects include physiological effects, such as pain, peripheral neuropathy, fatigue, and constipation, and psychological effects, such as anxiety and depression.

If you’re having trouble getting started, choosing an activity that you enjoy, perhaps one you can do with family and friends, may be a good motivator.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Tara Albrecht

It was once a common concern among healthcare providers that physical activity would exacerbate or provoke fatigue and pain in people undergoing cancer treatment. However, current research findings suggest that regular physical activity is one method of managing many common side effects reported by cancer survivors, both during and after cancer treatment. While still too early to conclude, recent findings suggest that regular physical activity may also improve long-term prognosis for cancer survivors.

Incorporating regular physical activity into your daily routine can be challenging. This is especially true for cancer survivors, who may be dealing not only with the overwhelming emotions of a new diagnosis but also with such side effects as fatigue, pain, and anxiety. The first step is often the most difficult. Finding a way to make that first step easier is critical, especially when the potential benefits include more energy, better sleep, and less pain.

There is no set prescription for the type of physical activity that cancer survivors should participate in. Walking, biking, swimming, and yoga are a few options. If you’re having trouble getting started, choosing an activity that you enjoy, perhaps one you can do with family and friends, may be a good motivator. Make a standing appointment on your calendar for physical activity, and follow through with it. Find out if an exercise class for cancer survivors is offered at your cancer center, as many hospitals are beginning to provide group physical activity programs for cancer survivors.

While research has shown that regular physical activity is safe and beneficial for most cancer survivors actively receiving treatment as well as those who have completed treatment, some treatment agents can cause long-term changes or damage to organs such as the heart. Therefore, it is very important that you consult with your healthcare provider prior to changing or beginning physical activity. Once cleared to participate, you can begin enjoying the many benefits that regular physical activity offers.

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Dr. Tara Albrecht is a postdoctoral scholar in Cancer Survivorship Research at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing. Her research focuses on improving symptom management and distress in cancer survivors. Prior to completing her graduate work, she practiced as a hematology/oncology nurse.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2013.