A safe way to exercise with breast cancer
You may have heard from your oncologist, your doctor, your nurses – and us! – that exercising is one of the best things you can do to stay healthy during and after treatment for breast cancer. The evidence is certainly there! Studies have shown that regular exercise can lower the risk of breast cancer returning, as well as lowering your risk of other cancers. It can also help you to maintain a healthy weight, which can also help to prevent breast cancer returning.
But there’s no denying that cancer treatment has a big impact on your body, from recovering from surgery to side effects of treatment. Not only can this make the idea of exercising a bit daunting, but you may also be worried about how to get active safely. Here are a few tips on how you can exercise safely during and after treatment.
Take your time and build up your activity levels gradually.
Slow and steady progress is the way to go. You may like to start with a short walk soon after surgery, if you feel up to it. For some, this may be a few days after surgery, for others it may take a bit longer – it’s okay to take the time that you need. If you can, try to maintain some level of activity throughout your treatment, such as a gentle walk or a stretching or yoga routine. Staying active during treatment can also help to reduce side effects such as fatigue.
Breast Cancer Foundation NZ funds four physiotherapy sessions for those who have had surgery for breast cancer, and also funds lymphoedema therapy. You can apply for these here.
Talk to your team.
As with any exercise you do, it’s a good idea to check in with your medical team to see if it’s safe. If you’re taking an exercise class, take a moment before class starts to speak to the instructor and let them know you’ve had breast cancer. They may be able to give you some modifications for any movements you can’t do. Likewise, if you opt for a personal trainer, let them know so they can scale your exercises.
Take care with strength training.
If you’re at risk of lymphoedema, check in with your doctor before starting a strength-training workout. Some doctors may be worried that lifting weights can trigger the onset of lymphoedema, while others believe that when it’s done correctly and carefully, the benefits outweigh the risks. The PAL trial in the US found that starting with very light weights and then progressively using heavier ones was far better than not exercising the arm at risk for lymphoedema. Those who were diagnosed with lymphoedema at the start of the trial, and who followed the weight-lifting plan, were also 50% less likely to have their lymphoedema get worse.
You may be given a compression sleeve or gloves to wear while doing your workout to help protect your arm.
Listen to your body
You know your body and its limits best. Don’t feel bad if you need to rest more at times, especially if you’re sick or feel particularly tired. If anything doesn’t feel right or hurts, stop what you’re doing, and if this persists, talk to your medical team or a personal trainer, who can help you modify your workout. Pay attention to your form as well – it’s much better to get the exercise right than it is to do more reps or hold the stretch. And, of course, don’t forget to warm up before your exercise session and cool down after!