No one thinks that they are going to get cancer, especially when you’ve spent a good portion of your life doing everything right. Breast cancer is on the rise and continues to impact women of all ages every year. One in eight women will be diagnosed with this disease and everyone knows someone that has been impacted by cancer .
As both a breast cancer survivor and a Cancer Exercise Specialist, I want to share tips on overcoming challenges when rebuilding your strength and fitness during and after cancer treatment.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, it came as a huge shock: I was in the best physical shape of my life! I exercised 5-6 days a week and ate a well-balanced diet; cancer was not even on my radar at that time of my life.
In hindsight, there were a few key health considerations that I was neglecting in my wellness routine, like prioritizing sleep and proper stress management. Yet, I just didn’t fit the profile of a high-risk candidate. Even without family history of the disease, some of us can be at a genetic disadvantage based on our individual genome.
Cancer has taught me some valuable lessons and I’ve learned that even those of us who are health conscious are not without risk. I’ve made it a top priority to spread awareness and help other women battling this disease.
Don’t forget to feel your boobies and schedule your yearly mammogram!
Exercise, soft tissue work, stress management and adequate rest are essential for healing and overall wellness during and after cancer treatment. Research shows that it’s not only safe to exercise after cancer, but also extremely beneficial during treatment . There have been more than 80 studies evaluating the effects of exercise on cancer patients. Exercise has been shown to improve quality of life and tolerance of symptoms.
If you are currently undergoing cancer treatment, speak to your doctor about exercise recommendations. Every case is unique and each patient will have a period of recovery time where physical activity is prohibited or limited. Your doctor might advise you to avoid range of motion exercises for a specified time period for tissue healing.
Walking is a great low-impact exercise that you can do to help boost your mental health and energy levels. Walking is typically good for most patients throughout the treatment process, unless a patient is dealing with severe anemia.
Recommendations for exercise; frequency, type, duration and level of intensity should be individualized based on various personal factors and treatment protocol. Even survivors who are dealing with extreme fatigue from their therapy will benefit from short bouts of stretching exercises each day. Cancer-related fatigue occurs in 75 to 90 percent of survivors. Exercise has been shown to reduce daily fatigue in women with breast cancer receiving chemotherapy .
Typically, the rehabilitation program is divided into four phases. Each phase has a specific focus to help the client improve mobility, stability and rebuild strength. It’s normal to experience tightness in your chest and arm after cancer surgeries and radiation. This will improve over time with a good exercise program. Massage therapy is also an excellent adjunct treatment.
Seeking out a breast cancer exercise specialist, who is trained to design an exercise protocol after surgery and will work with your physician to build a personalized plan, can be a great way to orient your efforts.
Fascia mobility is important for normal functioning of the musculoskeletal system. Our fascia is made up of elastin, water and collagen and surrounds muscles, neurovascular bundles, organs and groups of muscles. Basically, our fascia surrounds every structure in the body. When this network of fascia is inhibited by trauma or repetitive movements, tension is transmitted along the fascial planes. When a cancer patient experiences chronic pain, it’s usually from a buildup of scar tissue and an accumulation of dense restricted fascia. When the fascia is free, our body moves more freely. Stretch fascia and muscles in all planes of motion. Massage therapy can also assist with fascial release.
Focusing on the breath during your exercises helps reduce tension. Deep breathing is also an excellent way to reduce anxiety and stress, since it signals the brain to relax. When you are undergoing cancer treatment, stress reduction is helpful in your healing process.
Pick an activity that you enjoy, so you’ll want to do it often. If you’re not having fun, you’re less inclined to make it a regular habit. Start with short sessions of 10-15 minutes, three to five days per week, of walking or another low-impact aerobic exercise. If this feels great, build up to 30-60 minutes of activity three to five days per week. While undergoing treatment, try to continue your usual physical activity. You can reduce the duration and intensity, if needed, depending on how you are feeling.
Cancer survivors are encouraged to follow the U.S. DHHS (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services) guidelines for aerobic activity of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise, or a combination of the two. If their health status doesn’t allow this level of activity, the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) and U.S. DHHS recommend that they “should be as active as their abilities and conditions allow” and “avoid inactivity. “ . Find your fitness groove and rock it!
Make sure that your programming includes a wide variety of exercises that help build shoulder and core strength and stability. Making these two things a top priority in my training has made a big difference in my recovery. Resistance bands are inexpensive and an invaluable tool during the rehab process.
When your doctor has cleared you to resume all exercise modalities, start back slowly with resistance training and work your way up. Trust me, I know this firsthand: during my own recovery, I wanted to give a big middle finger to cancer and jump right back into my training. Keeping my insatiable appetite for intense training in check was a struggle, and I’ve had my share of roadblocks along the way, including a wicked bout of tendonitis.
Be patient with the process, and remember what your body has just endured. You have just fought — or are fighting — a difficult battle.
Try not to get discouraged if you can’t pick back up where you left off. Before you know it, you’ll be setting new personal records and amazed at how far you’ve come in your wellness journey!
Here are a few favorite rehabilitation exercises that I’ve incorporated in my own training.
This exercise improves range of motion in the shoulders, and engages the mid-back:
You can also do this exercise sitting in a chair, or standing with the ball against the wall.
This exercise works on core stabilization, as well as the shoulder girdle and lats:
This exercise works the lats, shoulder stabilization and strengthens the abdominals:
This exercise strengthens upper back and helps counter rounding of the shoulders:
This exercise improves shoulder range of motion:
Find the most up-to-date and helpful resources for tackling body image struggles, pre- & postnatal training issues, and everything in between.
Whether you’re a health and fitness professional looking to level up your knowledge or a woman wanting to feel stronger, fitter, and more confident, get the advice you can trust from the experts at Girls Gone Strong.