San Francisco-based Heather Millar is a breast cancer survivor. A journalist for more than 25 years, she has covered health care and science for many national magazines and websites.
While there has been no hard evidence that exercise can improve survival in patients with cancer, it can boost patients' mood and how they feel.
It’s foggy and cool in San Francisco where I live — the curl up and take a nap kind of weather. I feel mostly aches and pains today. But soon, I’m going to push back from my desk, and go to my weekly yoga class.
Exercise may be the last thing on your mind as a cancer patient or survivor, but recently, 25 leading cancer organizations around the globe recommended that exercise be prescribed to all cancer patients as part of their treatment regimen.
You’ve no doubt heard that there’s epidemiological evidence that exercise may protect against cancer recurrence and mortality. But the recent recommendation in the prestigious journal The Lancet is careful to point out that no evidence to date that proves exercise can improve cancer survival.
So why work out?
From my point of view, exercising is worth the trouble because you’ll feel better if you do. You’ll move more easily, and your mood will probably be more positive—all upsides that The Lancet cites. When I was in active treatment, my medical team made sure that one of the first appointments I had was with a physical therapist who could help me devise an exercise plan during surgery, chemo and radiation.
My treatment really took it out of me, so the therapist and I decided that daily walks were the way to go. They started out as rigorous hikes. By the last few chemo infusions, I could only manage modest strolls, but I kept doing them. Even as treatment knocked me down, those daily outings helped my mood. They got me out of the house and I think my quality of life was better as a result.
Now several years post-treatment, I am much more active again. I hike, cycle, ski, lift weights and do that yoga class. Has the exercise protected me from a recurrence of my breast cancer? I don’t know, but I do know that I feel better when I do it. Moving my body helps me keep my weight at a reasonable level and improves my sleep and my outlook on life.
Obviously, those of us who’ve experienced cancer have widely different situations and experiences. Some of us are lucky to be able to move easily; others cannot. Some feel energetic; others flattened by treatment and side effects.
I think the key here is that “exercise” does not have to mean that you suddenly become a marathoner or a triathlete. And if you didn’t have an exercise routine before diagnosis, don’t worry or feel guilty. Just move a little more.
Do what you can: That might mean gentle aerobics in a chair or a pool. It might mean something more strenuous, like a kick-boxing class or a run. Do something you enjoy, and start slow. You won’t regret it.