Walking as Best Therapy


Walking can help the chemo and post-surgical cancer patient in many ways.

Walking daily during chemo, or directly after surgery, has plenty of benefits. There is the body connection, and the one with the mind.

During chemo we’re just so tired, it seems counterintuitive to consider walking. And yet even half an hour generates energy and a feeling of 'better-being,' if not exactly well-being.

Francine Handwerker, the clinical psychologist who facilitates the cancer support groups at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey, has a similar view.

“Whether it’s five minutes or 30 minutes, it’s important to do something to show your mind and body that you still have it,” she says.

She talks about how liberating and empowering it is to be able to walk, after the “normal” energy had been taken away from the person. Walking shows the chemo patient that we can still do things.

Some chemos have specific side effects that can be reduced through walking. One side effect of chemotherapy for colon cancer can cause a burning sensation in the hands and feet. But one Dutch study showed that among 1,600 people, the burning decreased with 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous walking. Itching, muscle weakness and loss of reflexes from that chemo were also reduced with the same amount of walking.

The steroids we often take in chemo to reduce the side effects can cause weight gain. A study of 51,000 men undergoing treatment for prostate cancer found that three hours of casual walking per week reduced fatigue, depression and weight problems.

Since people with ports are not allowed to do vigorous exercise like swimming and golf, walking becomes the perfect exercise. I remember my breast surgeon telling me that one of her patients had golfed with the port and the thing ended up somewhere else in the chest!

After a recent lung surgery I noticed that with just a few minutes of walking, my posture seemed to improve. This might have been because standing up straight reduced the pain in my back. If half an hour is too much at once, even 10 or 15 minutes a couple of times a day is sufficient for the good results, and is tolerable. When the weather is bad, there’s always the mall. It’s the routine that makes the difference.

Of course, if your chemo causes sun sensitivity and you want to walk outside, you have to make sure you have a hat and clothing to cover the skin, or else stay in the shade. I’m sure I looked very strange walking on vacation in the Puerto Rican sun with a long-sleeved shirt and long pants!

Regardless of how you do it, forcing yourself to walk even when you don’t feel like it can pay off. But Handwerker notes that if you can’t walk, for whatever reason, remember that when you’re ready, you’ll get there!

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