Be the Boss Over Cancer

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While undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment, perhaps exercise may be the last thing you're interested in right now. But how's this for motivation? Numerous studies have shown that aerobic exercise can help relieve side effects like depression, decreased appetite, nausea and fatigue.

For working women, the benefits are particularly relevant. In a recent Canadian study, 94 percent of women who walked five days a week were able to continue working throughout their treatment, as opposed to just 81 percent of those who exercised only when they felt up to it.

When To Start

When can you start? As soon as your doctor gives you the green light. If surgery hasn't effected your active lung capacity or balance, you may be ready to start a light exercise program in a few weeks. Ask your doctor about limits or restrictions on your physical activities.

Use common sense

There is no "one size fits all" with cancer. Your exercise program should be based on your individual needs and abilities. Are you able to isolate muscle groups? Can you do abs without flexing your chest? If your energy is low, don't try to do intense aerobic exercise; low-level activity is best to create more energy. If you are nauseous or dizzy, don't exercise. If you've never exercised on a regular basis, it's particularly important to start in a structured environment with supervision.

What to Do

Exercises that mimic daily functional activity are good to start with. Depending on the affected areas, walking, stairs, pushing and pulling are all beneficial. Lower body exercises such as squats and lunges are also good. No matter what you decide to do, consult your physician before starting your exercise program.


Walking is an excellent exercise for people with cancer because it increases lung function, stimulates bone growth, and strengthens leg and back muscles. Although a metastasis to the legs, back or pelvis bone rules out running, it may not rule out walking since walking does not jar the joints. Walking in a swimming pool is especially gentle and it still stimulates the heart and lungs, building endurance.


When walking is painful because of metastasis to the spine, hip or pelvis, swimming can be a good substitute. It is not as stressful to the body, and if you swim far and fast enough, you will increase your aerobic capacity. Swimming's major advantage is that it stretches the muscles, including those of the rib cage, which increases the amount of air you can inhale and exhale. Swimming also strengthens your muscles as your body moves against the water's resistance without any jarring motions.

Strength training

Lifting weights or working out with weight resistance machines is sometimes recommended for people with cancer because the repetitive movements against resistance help build muscle. However, the more lean muscle mass you have, the more calories you will burn, so close supervision and weight monitoring are important to make sure your increased calorie needs don't exceed the number of calories you are able to consume. Some experts feel that weight resistance machines are safer than free weights because they are more easily controlled. If you have never done strength training before, work with an experienced trainer who understands the needs and limitations of a person with cancer.

Yoga and stretching

Yoga's gentle movements are designed to extend and tone muscles that have become shortened as a result of lengthy periods of inactivity, such as prolonged bed rest after surgery. Stretching promotes flexibility, relieves muscle tension and stiff joints, and increases blood circulation. Well-stretched muscles are also less vulnerable to injury than tight ones and require less energy and effort to move.

In addition, yoga and deep breathing exercises can help you relax and alleviate the anxiety brought on by a cancer diagnosis and treatment. The poses are easily adaptable to your specific needs with the help of an experienced instructor. For instance, with breast cancer, you would not want to do any weight bearing on the arms. Standing and balancing poses such as 'warrior,' 'tree,' 'mountain' and 'triangle' are good for beginners.

Three Exercises You Can Do at Your Desk

These exercises will not only help reduce wrist and shoulder strain from long days at your computer, they will also improve flexibility and reduce stress.

1. Shoulder Shrug

Place arms down alongside the body and breathe in through the nose. Raise shoulders to your ears and hold for five seconds; as you breathe out through the lips, push shoulders down and engage your back muscles; hold for five seconds. Repeat two times.

2. Shoulder and Upper Back Tone and Tighten

Breathe in and as you breathe out, raise arms out to the sides, palms facing down. Force the arms back and up to create tension; hold for ten seconds, then release arms and move them back to the sides. Repeat four times.

3. The Swim

Place both arms out in front, palms facing each other. Breathe in as you sweep your arms to the sides of the body parallel to the floor and push back. Breathe out as you bring your arms forward. Repeat five times.

Exercise Programs

Fitness On The Go Guide (to download or order for free)

Basic Stretches

Aerobic programs

Relaxation programs

Instantaneous Relaxation Exercise for People With Cancer

Group Exercise Programs

Team Survivor
1223 Wilshire Blvd., #570, Santa Monica, CA 90403

First Descents (check website for outing locations)

Casting For Recovery
PMB 257, 946 Great Plain Ave., Needham, MA 02492-3030

The Wellness Community (check website for the nearest location)

Videos and Tapes

Better Than Before
(a rehabilitative/exercise video for breast cancer survivors)

Unbound! Gentle Movement Lessons for Breast Cancer Survivors
(audio cassette)
by Alice Brydges

Relaxation & Guided Imagery Recordings
(free download)


Recovering from Breast Surgery : Exercises to Strengthen Your Body and Relieve Pain
by Diana Stumm

Essential Exercises for Breast Cancer Survivors
by Amy Halverstadt, Andrea Leonard and Peggy Fleming

The Force Program : The Proven Way to Fight Cancer Through Physical Activity and Exercise
by Jeff Berman, et al.