What We Can Learn from Athletes with Breast Cancer
21 Apr 2017
Being physically active is part of an athlete’s life. They train on a regular basis, participate in various events, and enjoy the challenge of being competitive. Even if you don’t identify as an athlete, physical activity may still be an important part of your routine. But how can this all be affected by breast cancer? A recent in-depth study of one athlete provides insights into how athletes with breast cancer are affects by treatment, and what can be expected during recovery.
A Case Study Reveals the Details
It’s not unusual to hear about professional athletes who have undergone treatment for breast cancer. Yet the details of their training during this time are very rarely, if ever, discussed.
Fortunately, a recent case study unveiled some of the changes athletes may go through during breast cancer treatment.
Lasting for 32 months, this case study followed an elite multi-sport female athlete. This athlete was being treated for stage III breast cancer. Yet she still needed to keep a competitive edge throughout her treatment. This treatment included chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, and breast reconstruction.
Following chemotherapy, the research team noticed that the athlete experienced the largest decline in fitness. While surgery, radiotherapy, and breast reconstruction resulted in declines as well, they were not nearly as significant.
Despite these challenges during treatment, the athlete returned to her pre-treatment fitness level. Yet the process was not easy. She had to develop a realistic training program. She also had to communicate with her exercise physiologist and medical care providers on a regular basis. Further, she had to stay persistent and motivated while working her way back up.
Exercising During Breast Cancer Treatment
You most likely know that exercising during cancer treatment has a positive impact on your body. Not only does it keep your weight in check, it can increase your muscle strength and quality of life. Not to mention, exercising during treatment seems to reduce feelings of fatigue and pain.
There is no specific training routine that perfectly suits all women undergoing breast cancer treatment. But there are still some recommendations that may help you create your own routine.
Many professionals believe that a moderately intense exercise routine is best. This type of routine should focus primarily on aerobic or resistance exercise. Some women may also benefit from combining resistance and aerobic exercise programs. The timing and intensity of an exercise routine may also vary depending on your stage of breast cancer and specific treatment.
In many cases, exercise recommendations follow the American College of Sports Medicine’s guidelines.
If you’re already active, your routine may need to change to accommodate treatment side effects. Following chemotherapy and radiotherapy, side effects may make exercising difficult. During these times, you may need to reduce the amount you exercise or avoid exercise altogether.
Meanwhile, women who were not active before treatment should start with a low-intensity exercise program during treatment. Over time, the intensity can be increased. Yet exercise may still need to be reduced based on treatment side effects.
Before you start exercising during your breast cancer treatment, it is extremely important to discuss your planned routine with your physician. You should work with your medical team to ensure you are not putting yourself at risk by combining certain exercises with your breast cancer treatments.
Once you have an exercise routine planned, make sure you check your heart rate, blood pressure, and other vital signs regularly. Always stop exercising if you feel disoriented, nauseous, or pain in your chest or body. To improve your safety, try exercising with a professional, caregiver, or partner.
As with most things, there are precautions you must take when exercising during breast cancer treatment. There are a few situations that can increase your risk of harm. If you find yourself in one of these situations, it is often best to stop exercising.
- Neutropenia: this problem lowers your white blood cell count. As a result, your body is less able to fight infections. Always keep an eye on your temperature while exercising. If you develop a fever above 100 degree Fahrenheit, stop your exercise routine.
- Anemia: you may need to either scale back or halt your exercise program if you develop anemia. Anemia occurs when your red blood cell count falls below normal. When you have fewer red blood cells, your body’s ability to move oxygen to its tissues is reduced. As a result, exercising may place extreme strain on the body.
- Side effects: Swollen ankles, vomiting, diarrhea, and shortness of breath are common side effects of breast cancer treatment. Unfortunately, they also increase your risk of harm if you exercise while experiencing any of these.
- Thrombocytopenia: caused by a low platelet count, thrombocytopenia increases your risk of bleeding and bruising. Any contact activities or spots should be avoided if you develop thrombocytopenia. You should also avoid exercises that have a high risk of falling or injury.
A Professional’s Opinion
In this podcast at Breastcancer.org, Kathy Miller, MD, discusses how breast cancer treatments affect women’s ability to exercise.
The author of over 60 scientific papers, Dr. Miller is very familiar with the topic of breast cancer treatment and biology. She teaches at Indiana University as a professor of medicine and belongs to the Breastcancer.org Professional Advisory Board.
In her interview, she talks about figuring out the safe level of exercise while you are treated for breast cancer. She also talks about how your stamina is affected by breast cancer treatment and how exercise can benefit you. Further, she discusses tips for starting an exercise routine during treatment.
Regardless of your fitness level and exercise ability, it is a worthwhile interview to listen to.