About Breast Cancer and Exercise

Author: OncoLink Team
Content Contributor: Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Therapy and Fitness
Last Reviewed:

Cancer, and its treatment, will change your body. Exercise is one of the best ways that you can maintain strength, energy, and mobility. Exercise can also help you cope with cancer-related fatigue. You should do exercises that are right for you, based on your diagnosis and any treatments you receive. Not everybody enjoys the same type of exercise. You should find an exercise that fits your interest and the needs of your body. If you don't feel comfortable exercising on your own, you can work with a physical therapist or a qualified trainer.

Please consult with your care team before starting any exercise program.

How do I know that it's okay for me to exercise?

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) reports exercise is safe during and after cancer treatments. The ACSM encourages exercise for cancer patients because of its positive effect on fatigue, anxiety, depression, physical function, and overall quality of life.  Please consult with your care team before starting any exercise program.

What will exercise do for me?

Exercise is the best way to keep and build your strength and energy. In addition, some types of exercise can help you control your weight. Exercise can help to reduce cancer-related fatigue and has been shown to help you feel better. Some patients find that exercise can help to reduce anxiety. Exercise may also help to improve hip and trunk motion, sleep, oxygen levels in your blood and your emotional wellbeing. It may also help to decrease your risk for osteoporosis.

Can I exercise while I am still undergoing active treatment?

You should always talk to your care team before beginning an exercise program. In general, exercise has been shown to be safe in people who are undergoing active chemotherapy or radiation therapy. During treatment, some people don't feel up to exercising, while other people find that exercise makes them feel better. You will need to decide how exercise makes you feel. You don't need a lot of exercise to feel the benefits. However, inactivity can increase fatigue.

Should I be concerned about lymphedema?

Lymphedema refers to the swelling that can occur in your arms and legs. If you do not have it, but are concerned about developing the condition, you should read our helpful fact sheet called "Understanding and Decreasing Lymphedema Risk in Breast Cancer." Studies have shown that women who had treatment for breast cancer can do careful, slowly progressed arm exercises without increased risk.

If you already have the condition, it is important that you wear a well-fitted compression sleeve and glove or gauntlet when you are exercising. Studies show you can do arm strengthening exercises, but you will need to start with low weights and progress slowly. You should begin your exercise program with a physical therapist, or a qualified trainer certified in lymphedema therapy.

How much exercise should I do?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service (DHHS) Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans include:

  • Aerobic exercise: 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise.
  • Strength training: 2 to 3 weekly sessions which include exercises for major muscle groups.
  • Flexibility training: Stretch major muscle groups on days you are exercising.

These guidelines are the same for people with or without a cancer diagnosis.

Are there any special considerations due to my diagnosis?

While exercising is important, your diagnosis and treatment must be considered when choosing an exercise program. Specific considerations are:

  1. Surgery. Ask your surgeon when it is okay for you to start exercising after surgery. It may be recommended you wait 6 to 8 weeks following surgery to return to your normal exercise routine.
  2. Active chemotherapy or radiation treatment. You may find yourself feeling very fatigued during treatment. Even if you're too tired to complete your entire exercise routine, try to remain active.
  3. Risk of fracture. Certain diagnoses and medications can put you at risk for bone breaks. Talk to your care team about your risk. You can still exercise, but you should avoid lifting heavy weights.
  4. Lymphedema. See the section above about lymphedema.

What types of exercises can I do?

There are many different types of exercises you can do. As with all exercise programs, it is important to work on your energy, strength, and flexibility when you exercise. In general, the easiest exercise is walking. You can also try yoga, hiking, biking, or any activity that is fun for you.

How can I get more information?

If you feel comfortable, you can exercise on your own. If you feel like you need help, you can see a physical therapist or trainer to get you started with an exercise program. A therapist can help you determine your exercise needs and can get you started on a safe program. Talk to your care team about your options to stay active.

References

American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). (2019). Expert Panel: Cancer Treatment Plans Should Include Tailored Exercise Prescriptions. Retrieved from http://www.acsm.org/read-research/newsroom/news-releases/news-detail/2019/10/16/expert-panel-cancer-treatment-plans-should-include-tailored-exercise-prescriptions.

Breastcancer.org. (2019). Lymphedema and Exercise. Retrieved from https://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/lymphedema/exercise.

US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). (2019). Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/fitness/be-active/physical-activity-guidelines-for-americans/index.html

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