How To Exercise After Cancer Treatment During COVID-19


Exercise after cancer treatment is often a journey unto itself, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become increasingly challenging. Hear from one pancreatic cancer survivor on how he changed his exercise routine.

Before my head-on collision with pancreatic cancer, I went to the gym on occasion. But like most, I came up with more than an occasional excuse not to go.

Other than being a little overweight I had none of the typical cancer risk factors. I didn’t smoke. Binge drinking for me consisted of a six-pack of beer spread out over the course of a year. Nor had cancer been widespread in my family. So, getting hit not only with cancer but one of the most lethal forms of it shattered me.

For almost a year my life centered around it. First, a brutal surgery called a Whipple procedure to remove my tumor, followed by months of radiation and chemo. This was followed by another year of complications from the procedure which resulted in weeks-long hospital stays.

Having been through a cancer meat grinder and ecstatic to be alive, like many survivors I wondered, “Now what?”

I started small.

First, I did pool physical therapy in a 92-degree therapy pool. The buoyancy of water allowed me to begin exercising again. Walking more than a hundred yards soon became easier. Later I returned to the gym. I started with five minutes on a reclined bike with two upper body machine exercises. Over the course of a year, I worked my way up to thirty minutes on the bike and a half dozen machine exercises spending about an hour in the gym three to five times per week. Getting back offered me a glimpse that maybe my life could get back to somewhat normal.

I go to the gym because I need to and not because I want to. Besides feeling better, a good workout is my way of staying in the fight. Many will tell you when they are in the heat of their treatments, they feel like they are in the game fighting their cancer. But when their treatments end, a feeling of mournful resignation sets in. They feel there is nothing more they can do other than wait and see if their cancer comes back. I experienced this too. Thus, getting back to the gym has been my way of telling my cancer you may take me, but you can’t take the fight out of me.

After the COVID-19 pandemic struck Washington State hard our governor shut down most of the state, including gyms. To maintain some vital physical activity, I had no choice but to improvise. Like many quarantined at home, I developed a rigorous list of outside projects I needed to do. After some strategic trips to pick up the necessary materials, I set to it. This kept me outside for hours each day providing the physical exercise I craved.

Within three months, I was running out of projects (as well as cash to fund them.) Fortunately, gyms in areas where the COVID infection curve appeared to be flattening, were allowed to reopen at a reduced capacity.

More than a little hesitant, I thought not only twice but a dozen or more times about getting back to the gym. Would I get COVID? Did the benefits of exercising outweigh the risk of getting it? What could I do to reduce that risk?

Here’s what I came up with:

Do Something

For me, walking didn’t work. With three compressed vertebrae in my back courtesy of my thirty lethal abdominal radiation doses, walking more than a block resulted in ebbing back pain which made sleeping difficult.

As a compromise, I ended up on a reclined bike with upper body exercises. This made sense for me but might not make sense for you. Find a type of exercise that fits you.

Start Small

No need to set out to do big things. Start small. Set small goals.

A good way to fail big is to start too big. I think of January each year when the gym population explodes. By February the population contracts to the regulars who are there year in and year out.

Wear A Mask

Although a mask may not be required, it is still a good idea to wear one especially if you consider yourself at risk. Wear a mask.

Wipe Down Everything

Although the gym I go to has upped their cleaning standards, I remained hesitant to go back. I made a deal with the manager to provide me with a towel and disinfectant spray so I can spray and wipe down everything before I use it.

Avoid Touching Your Face

As a practice, I try to keep my hands away from my face but when I am in the gym my hands stay locked below my waist. Avoid touching your face at all costs.

Maintain Social Distance

I socially distance from others at the gym. Inside most gyms, there are multiple paths through the gym. If someone is on one path, I choose a different path.

Wash Your Hands

Much like avoiding touching my face, before leaving the gym I wash my hands with soap and warm water to make sure they are virus-free.

Change Your Clothes and Shower

To further diminish the risk of spreading the virus as soon as I get home, I change out of my gym clothes and shower.

Check-in With Your Doctor

Everyone should check in with their doctor before starting any exercise routine. Everyone’s medical situation is different.

What works for me may be wrong for you.

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