Breast cancer and exercise, for healing? Exercise during the cancer treatment period reduces depression and fatigue. It may offer more benefits as well. Some researchers claim that physical activity, like aerobic exercise, offer more than a psychological impact. A growing number of physicians and researchers believe that people who remain physically active during treatment are more likely to beat cancer.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) panel revised the national guidelines on exercise for cancer patients that their group had published six years ago. Previous recommendations emphasized rest. They now advise cancer patients and those recovering from cancer to get the same amount of exercise recommended for everyone. This translates to two and-a-half hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.
The Pink Method, a six week exercise program for breast cancer patients.
The panel expressed that exercise “improves physical functioning, quality of life, and cancer-related fatigue.” There is also evidence that moderate exercise can help those in remission to live longer and lead a more active life. Colleen Doyle, Managing Director of Healthy Eating, Active Living Environments (HEALE) at the American Cancer Society, affirmed the 2010 panel findings. She says the new guidelines have laid questions to rest regarding whether or not cancer patients should exercise.
Exercise is so important for cancer patients, but so many doctors and health professionals are concerned about safety issues– is it safe for people undergoing treatment to exercise? [This] group has decided that yes, it is. These guidelines really help lay some of those issues to rest. This clearly delineates that it is safe and it is feasible and we should be recommending exercise for cancer patients.
-Colleen Doyle, HEALE
In 2012, Doyle explained for the first time how the evidence was strong enough to warrant the release of formal guidelines. The evidence reveals the powerful effects of good nutrition and physical activity to lower the chances of a recurrence. It reduces doubt for those who question breast cancer and exercise.
Vicki McGrath is the fitness and wellness director at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City, California. McGrath holds several fitness certifications. She is a cancer exercise trainer and breast cancer exercise specialist. She is also Pink Ribbon Program certified, and specializes in postoperative breast cancer rehabilitation. If anyone knows about breast cancer and exercise, it is her. McGrath, ironically enough, as she puts it, is currently going through treatment for breast cancer. A lumpectomy and an axillary dissection (a removal of several nodes under the armpit area), were performed in December. Her final round of chemotherapy is the day after this interview, and she will begin radiation soon.
“I’ve been working out like crazy, during my chemo,” she said. “I think I’m the exception. My treatment plan is not heavy duty. I’m lucky. I definitely have effects from it, but I’m combating my treatment plan with as much exercise as I can possibly stand.”
McGrath is unsure if she will need reconstruction. Many of her clients are dealing with treatment and reconstruction. Her advice is simple:
“The stronger you are going in, the better off you are,” she said. “If there is a program you can put in place ahead of time that will be fantastic. You need to get as much of a routine as you can. The strength levels will help with range of motion.”
McGrath is an extremely athletic 54 year old who skis, rock climbs, and works out pretty intensely. She thinks it’s important to be as active as possible, although only once you are cleared for exercise.
“Most of the exercise I do will counteract a lot of the complications I could have,” she said.
Yoga and Stretching
Yoga controls stress. The combination of stretching, relaxation, breathing and meditation techniques creates a feeling of well being. Lorenzo Cohen, a professor who led the research at the University of Texas, conducted a study that was reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The study split 191 women with breast cancer into three groups: yoga, simple stretching or neither. The study linked yoga to improvements not only in the quality of life, but included measures of mood, pain and fatigue. The study also showed yoga could help regulate the stress hormone, cortisol. High levels of cortisol are linked to poor survival rates of cancer patients. The study showed that by controlling stress, the benefits of yoga are more extensive than those of simply stretching. It is one more way that breast cancer and exercise are a good match.
Yoga can be tough, however, according to McGrath.
“It depends on the person, and the type of surgery, and their overall upper body strength to start,” she said. “Someone suffering with lymphedema may aggravate their symptoms with a pose like downward dog. But yoga is great once you can do the stretching after recovery.”
An article from Runner’s World in 2014 reports that regular physical activity can reduce breast cancer risk by as much as 25 percent. What does exercise do for a woman already fighting cancer?
A study by Paul Williams, Ph.D., is highlighted in the article. Williams’ work illustrates the health benefits of running and walking to conditions such as hypertension and to all forms of cancer. Williams looked at breast cancer mortality in 79,124 women during an 11-year study following their baseline survey. None of the women had a history of breast cancer before entering the study. The women regularly recorded the distances they walked or ran each week. Breast cancer and exercise turned out to be a good mix.
The study showed a 41.5 percent lower risk of breast cancer for women who kept to the current recommendations for exercise of two and a half hours per week. In total, there were 111 women who died of breast cancer who participated in the study.
Another article in Runner’s World, also from 2014, discussed how exercise benefits breast cancer survivors. Researchers from the University of North Carolina found that there was no evidence moderate exercise at a moderate intensity for just a few hours a week, interferes with treatment or recovery.
But what if you’re not a runner?
Breast Cancer and Exercise: Challenge Cardio
McGrath recommends walking, hiking, and biking. Try something that challenges your cardio.
“Walking is the simplest thing. If you don’t have myopathy from the effects of the chemo, then getting your heart rate up and walking is one of the best things you can do,” she said. “You can do it with a little more rigor, maybe hiking with hiking sticks. I always recommend walking and then increase elevation with hiking, as strength returns.”
“I like biking. It’s simple,” she said. “Biking gives you a freeing feeling,” she said. “It’s really all about getting back to the activities you love. Whatever that is, you just need to challenge yourself.”
She stresses that it’s important to push yourself, and treat yourself well.
“The treat is that you are physically active so you can combat breast cancer, and keep it from coming back,” she said.
Breast cancer and exercise, while not the most intuitive pair, offers so many benefits. Just choose any activities that increase your heart rate, and your body will thank you.