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‘Let’s Take the Stairs:’ How I Encouraged My Daughter to Get Exercise During Cancer Treatments


A mother of a breast cancer survivor explains how she and her daughter creatively incorporated exercise into her daughter’s daily routine to improve her physical and mental health during treatment.

The benefits of exercise are well documented, for both physical and mental well-being. When my daughter Adrienne was diagnosed with breast cancer at 27, all the “-ologists” we spoke to emphasized how important it would be for her to move her body during treatment, particularly since one of her cancer medications was Herceptin (trastuzumab) which can impact heart function.

We both smiled and nodded and said she would. That was, of course, before either of us knew the physical toll that surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation would have on her body.

There are a lot of logistics that have to be managed with cancer treatment and one of the things that helped me with my mental health while I supported Adrienne was planning things out. I knew there was no way I could get her to do an aerobics class or train for a biathlon while she was going in and out of recovery mode, so I worked on ways to build in exercise that I thought I could convince her to go along with.

Since COVID-19 was not a factor at the time, we had a lot more options — so some of these ideas may not work for patients with cancer at the moment but may be of assistance in the future.

Mall Walking

When you live in a winter environment going for a walk outside can be a challenge, especially when you are protecting surgical incisions and the ground is slippery from snow or ice. In the summer it can be much too hot to safely be outdoors, and since many chemotherapy treatments make patients more sensitive to the sun, remaining protected from direct sunlight is significant.

Adrienne’s first surgery happened in March and it was often too treacherous to wander the neighborhood, so on weekdays when I knew it wouldn’t be busy, I would pack her up in the car and we would go to the nearest mall for a walk. The benefit of that was if she needed to rest there were benches where she could sit down for a while, and as the days progressed her ability to go a little bit further before taking advantage of that was very good for her spirit.

Parking “In the Middle of Nowhere”

With the multitude of appointments, it seemed like we were on the go a lot during treatment. While most people went around and around looking for the closest spot to the door when outside wasn’t a wintry mess, if it was an option we decided instead to park in the middle of nowhere.

Depending on the size of the parking lot, that meant that sometimes we built in a full city block walking to and from the facility. We also did this when we were doing regular tasks such as grocery shopping, and since grocery carts have wheels, we didn’t have to carry the bags any further!

Parking Between Appointments

There were days when there would be a few hours between appointments, but it wasn’t enough time to go home and relax so we would leave the car parked where it was and walk to the local mall or coffee shop to wait out the interim.

Our favorite was the 20-minute walk to a local mall that had a shop with the most amazing mango bubble tea. We had to be careful of smells when Adrienne was doing the first round of chemo, so a couple of times a fast-food place would mean a small detour to avoid the danger zone but that only added a few steps to our counter.

Taking the Stairs

I wish I could count how many times we walked up and down the stairs in the hospital where chemotherapy happened. During radiation treatment we actually doubled up. We chose the further parking structure and parked on a higher level to give us more stairs to climb back up.

There were many occasions when the trip back to the car meant resting on a landing or even halfway up a flight of stairs between levels, but in the end, she always made it. An added benefit to taking the stairs was not being in a confined space with other people when Adrienne’s immune system was in the tank during treatment.

When the spring weather came, we wandered the neighborhood and found another staircase that went between two streets. There were eight sets of 10 stairs with landings between them to go from the top to the bottom.

At first Adrienne could only make it halfway up one, then it became all the way to one landing, and it progressed until she could make it all the way to the top.

I am certain that building in those smaller efforts at keeping her body moving were an essential part of how she stood like Rocky at the top of the stairs after that full climb. Yes, it was good for her heart physically, but the mental boost she got from that particular victory means so much more.

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