Questions About Exercise During and After Cancer Treatment

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Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center exercise physiologist Nancy Campbell helps cancer patients build strength and endurance. Here, she shares answers to some common questions about starting or continuing a fitness plan during and after cancer treatment.

Why would I want to exercise while I'm undergoing cancer treatment?

While it may seem counterintuitive, exercise offers key benefits for cancer patients — even those undergoing difficult treatments. In fact, it can be one of the best ways to give yourself an extra boost during and after cancer treatment.

Physical activity helps lower your stress, improve your sleep patterns, and elevate your mood. Something as simple as walking briskly around the block a few times can help you feel better both physically and emotionally. And, because it can help ensure you get a good night's sleep, it helps combat fatigue — a common complaint among those undergoing cancer treatment.

Is it safe to exercise during cancer treatment?

Absolutely — as long as your doctor says it's OK. Your health care team and your exercise physiologist can work with you to make sure your fitness plan won't interfere with your treatment or recovery.

For example, if you've had surgery, it may take some time for wounds to heal before you should start exercising. Or, if you're experiencing lymphedema (swelling) as a result of lymph node removal or treatment, you'll want to consult an exercise physiologist to make sure your fitness plan won't make the swelling worse.

Are there special exercise programs designed for cancer survivors?

Yes. At Dana-Farber, cancer patients and survivors can get a no-cost fitness consult or attend one of the women's exercise classes offered through our Adult Survivorship Program. The classes and consults are open to all cancer patients and survivors — not just those treated at Dana-Farber.

If you're not near Dana-Farber, the American Cancer Society and the American College of Sports Medicine offer a certification for cancer exercise trainers, so consider finding a trainer who holds this accreditation. Or try your local branch of the YMCA, which partners with Livestrong to offer a 12-week exercise program for cancer survivors in communities nationwide.

How should I get started?

After you get signoff from your health care team, consider what exercise types might work best for you. Some options to consider:

  • Flexibility exercises, such as yoga or stretching. No matter what your treatment regimen, it's likely that you can find a flexibility exercise that will work for you. Maintaining your mobility can help ensure that you'll be ready to move on to more vigorous exercise.
  • Aerobic exercise, such as running, swimming, or brisk walks. Aerobic exercise is key, because it helps you burn calories and lose weight. It also builds cardiovascular fitness, which can lower your risk of health problems like heart attack and diabetes. If you have balance problems, try exercises that are less likely to make you fall, such as riding a stationary bicycle.
  • Resistance exercises, such as lifting weights. These can help build muscle, which is helpful because it's not uncommon for people to lose muscle (and add fat) during cancer treatment.

Ideally, your routine should include both aerobic and resistance exercises, because these will help you build muscle and increase your stamina, which can help improve your overall health.

Are there research studies that focus on exercise and lifestyle changes for survivors?

Yes. Dana-Farber and other cancer centers are often looking for patients who are willing to participate in research studies involving exercise. Learn more about our clinical trials related to exercise.