Exercise During Cancer Treatment Gives Some Patients a Boost

Cancer patients can stay strong by remaining active during cancer.

Sara L. B. Brown, an artist and mother of two in Colorado, didn’t exercise regularly before she received a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. But then her oncologist told her that patients who ran seemed to survive the longest.  

“I started running while recovering from chemo, first just short distances, then gradually going farther until I could make a mile without stopping,” Brown says. Exercising gave her more energy, and she found that the mental toughness gained from running—that effort required to keep going—helped her deal with long, sometimes unpleasant procedures as well. 

“When I get the shoes back on and exercise, it makes me stronger mentally and helps me recover faster physically,” Brown says. “Pushing myself helped me heal and get back to where I needed to be.”

Pushing myself just a little farther and a little faster, I learned to say ‘no’ to my body when it wanted to give up on me, and push on to where I had no idea I could be.

Gary T. Kimmel, MD, founder of Cancer Foundation for Life in Tyler, Texas, says there is compelling data on the benefits of exercise during cancer treatment. Some of the most important benefits may be psychological. 

“A major factor during and following chemo, demonstrated repeatedly, is the influence the cancer experience has on your mood and perspective,” Kimmel says. Exercise can be “just as effective as drug therapy in elevating mood and managing that aspect of the experience.”

“When someone gets a diagnosis of cancer and begins that journey, it’s all about what they are going to do to you,” he explains. “You depend on others to treat you and get you well.” But when patients hear that they can participate in their care, they begin to perceive themselves as survivors. 

[Find exercise program for cancer patients and survivors]

“Being active gives you a sense of self-control,” Doyle says. “It is great to have control over something during a trying, difficult time when there is such a sense of loss of control over so many things.”

Brown says exercise helped her develop perseverance. “Pushing myself just a little farther and a little faster, I learned to say ‘no’ to my body when it wanted to give up on me,” she says, “and push on to where I had no idea I could be.”

Anna L. Schwartz, PhD, a researcher at Idaho State University and a family nurse practitioner who specializes in oncology and pain management, says exercise also helps with body image, self-esteem and anxiety, as well as depression during treatment. “Exercise boosts endorphins. It’s recommended for healthy people who have mild to moderate depression and is known to decrease mild depression. It has the same effect in cancer patients.”

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