Exercise as Medicine: Navigating Cancer Treatment with Physical Activity

Exercise as Medicine: Navigating Cancer Treatment with Physical Activity

Cancer treatment is physically and emotionally challenging. The symptoms and side effects of treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, medications, and surgery can take a toll on the body and mind. That’s where exercise steps in as a powerful ally, acting as a vital part of your cancer treatment and recovery.

Reducing Treatment Side Effects

Cancer treatments can lead to various side effects, and while not everyone experiences the same ones, exercise has been shown to help manage many of them effectively.

  • Fatigue: Fatigue is one of the most common side effects during cancer treatment. While it might seem counterintuitive, engaging in the right physical activity program can significantly improve energy levels. However, it’s crucial that this program is tailored to the individual’s specific needs. Consulting an exercise physiologist is an excellent way to design an appropriate exercise routine that enhances energy levels without pushing you beyond your limits.
  • Reduced Concentration and Memory: Many individuals undergoing cancer treatment experience a decline in concentration and memory. Exercise, however, has a surprising benefit – it can improve cognition, memory, and focus. This is a compelling reason to stay physically active during your cancer journey.
  • Pain: Pain is another frequent companion during cancer treatments, whether it’s general joint and musculoskeletal aches, postsurgical pain, or other discomforts. Exercise therapy and rehabilitation can be remarkably beneficial. Again, it’s essential to collaborate with professionals experienced in cancer rehabilitation to create a tailored plan that addresses your unique pain-related needs.
  • Peripheral Neuropathy and Reduced Balance: Chemotherapy can lead to peripheral neuropathy, causing numbness, tingling, and reduced sensation in the feet, which can negatively impact balance and increase the risk of falls. Exercise can be instrumental in improving balance, mobility, and fall prevention.
  • Constipation: Besides dietary adjustments, exercise is an excellent way to alleviate constipation symptoms. Even a simple walk can make a difference!
  • Mood Changes: Mental health and mood often suffer during cancer treatment. Exercise serves as a natural mood booster by releasing endorphins.
  • Deconditioning: Due to the aforementioned side effects, it’s common to experience deconditioning during cancer treatment. Nausea, a prevalent side effect, can make staying active challenging. Coupled with reduced energy levels and mood changes, this can dampen your motivation to move your body, leading to muscle deconditioning, decreased cardiovascular health, and reduced exercise tolerance. Everyday activities like shopping, cleaning, or climbing stairs can become taxing and challenging. Engaging in exercise, however, helps improve strength and exercise tolerance throughout treatment. Consulting an exercise physiologist is an excellent way to determine which types of exercise are suitable for your situation.

Choosing the Right Exercise

Choosing the right exercise regimen during cancer treatment is critical. Here are some guidelines:

  • Seek Professional Guidance: Before starting any exercise program, it’s essential to consult a rehabilitation professional experienced in designing exercise programs for cancer patients. Whether it’s an Exercise Physiologist, Occupational Therapist, or Physiotherapist, ensure that they have specific training in cancer rehabilitation. While exercise is crucial, it’s equally vital that the program is tailored to your unique needs.
  • Personalise Your Program: Don’t compare yourself to others. Every individual’s cancer journey is different, and your fitness level during treatment may vary significantly from someone else’s. Focus on what feels right for you.
  • Incorporate Resistance Training: Resistance training is essential to maintain conditioning and strength during treatment. It’s also crucial for bone health, helping prevent or manage conditions like Osteopenia or Osteoporosis. Resistance training can involve weights, resistance bands, bodyweight exercises, steps, or even Pilates.
  • Include Aerobic Exercise: Aerobic exercise is vital for cardiovascular health and mental well-being. Walking, cycling, and swimming are excellent options. Monitoring your blood pressure is essential, as cancer treatments can often affect it.
  • Stretching: Stretching exercises help maintain joint flexibility and range of motion, which can be especially valuable if you’ve had radiation therapy or surgery.
  • Balance and Falls Prevention: If you’ve experienced deconditioning and balance issues during treatment, specific exercises focused on balance and falls prevention can be beneficial.
  • Core and Pelvic Floor Strengthening: Many cancer patients notice a decline in core and pelvic floor strength, which can lead to issues like incontinence. Incorporating exercises that target these areas and focusing on breathing techniques can be helpful.
  • Relaxation Exercises: Relaxation exercises can vary from person to person, so find what works best for you. Breathing exercises, yoga, stretching, walking, or swimming can all contribute to relaxation.
  • Start Slowly: Begin with small, manageable steps, and gradually increase intensity as you feel comfortable.
  • Rest When Needed: Listen to your body, and don’t hesitate to rest when necessary. Recovery is a crucial part of your routine.
  • Avoid Overexertion: Striking the right balance can be challenging. Overdoing it can lead to exhaustion, fatigue, and potentially worsen other symptoms. Pushing too hard, especially after surgeries like breast surgery, can lead to injuries, pain, and lymphoedema issues. Taking a gradual approach to exercise, under the guidance of an Accredited EP, can help you find the right balance.

Be Kind to Yourself

Remember that you’ve been through a lot. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Listen to your body, lean on your support network, and consider seeking professional guidance during this challenging but conquerable time.

Exercise is a valuable companion during your cancer treatment. It can help manage side effects, improve physical and mental well-being, and empower you in the face of adversity. However, it’s essential to approach any physical activity with guidance, personalisation, and patience.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to the professionals at Conveniently Active Exercise Physiology to create a tailored plan that supports your path to recovery, or contact the team at Coastal Rehab Hub on (02) 4312 7033 to find out more.