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Preparing to Exercise

What to know as a cancer patient before beginning an exercise program.

BY Melissa Gaskill
PUBLISHED September 17, 2012

Everyone can do some kind of activity, says the American Cancer Society’s Colleen Doyle, a registered dietitian. But it’s important to keep in mind a few general precautions before exercising during cancer treatment.

Someone who was already active may have to slow down a bit during treatment and perhaps not exercise as intensely as they had before. Doyle recommends that patients assess how they feel and avoid pushing themselves.

People who were sedentary before should start slowly, adding more intensity and frequency as they are able. The overall message, she says, is for patients to consider how active they were before treatment and adjust accordingly. “It’s about managing expectations while encouraging people to be as active as they are able to be.”

Side effects of treatment can determine the most appropriate type of exercise. For example, someone with neuropathy may have numb toes, which would make riding a stationary bike a better choice than walking on a treadmill. Patients experiencing lymphedema have long been discouraged from upper body strength training or vigorous activity, Doyle says. But a number of clinical trials have shown that not only is physical activity safe for these individuals but also may actually reduce the incidence and severity of lymphedema.

It’s about managing expectations while encouraging people to be as active as they are able to be.

Patients undergoing frequent chemotherapy treatments may have lower immune function and should avoid working out in public places, such as gyms. People who are having skin reactions from radiation treatments and those with open wounds or catheters should avoid swimming in chlorinated pools or use a petrolatum-based ointment, such as Aquaphor, on the treatment site as a barrier. An upper-body catheter may necessitate temporarily avoiding upper-body strength training. Patients with advanced disease who experience limitations due to bone metastases should discuss exercise with their healthcare provider and generally use pain or discomfort as a guide for what type of activity to avoid.

It’s important for patients to communicate with their healthcare providers about their activities. “Let them know what you’re doing,” Doyle says. “Exercise should be a very individualized approach, based on age and previous level of activity, type and stage of cancer, and type of treatment. With so many things going into the picture, it’s a good idea to talk to your healthcare team about your plans and what you’re currently doing.” Part of that communication is to discuss any nutritional supplement use.

Exercise, she says, can give patients a better shot at getting through treatment successfully, avoid recurrence and reduce the chance of developing another cancer. “It makes a huge difference.”

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