Be the Boss Over Cancer

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By Jo Cavallo

A long-held belief that cancer patients experiencing fatigue while undergoing treatment should rest and remain inactive until they’ve finished therapy, is quickly being eclipsed by new research showing that maintaining a regular exercise routine during and after cancer treatment actually improves stamina and overall quality of life. What’s more, say experts, it may reduce the risk of recurrence, especially in breast cancer patients.

“Many oncologists are recommending that overweight breast cancer patients lose weight, because it’s suspected that fat cells have an increased concentration of estrogen even though patients are on medications to decrease the amount of estrogen in the body,” says Donna J. Wilson, R.N., personal trainer and fitness coordinator at the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Caner Center in New York City.

Regardless of your level of physical activity prior to your cancer diagnosis and treatment, Wilson cautions against over exerting yourself once you resume or start an exercise program. “I tell patients to use a one to ten scale to measure exhaustion. One is they are not tired at all and ten is they’re exhausted,” says Wilson, and pace yourself accordingly.

And be sure to talk to your doctor about when to start an exercise program, what kind of exercises you should do and how much exercise is right for you.


Breathing exercises can reduce anxiety, help you relax and improve flexibility. Here’s how.

Deep Breathing (increases the flow of oxygen throughout the body) Breathe in through the nose for the count of four; hold your breath for a count of seven; breathe out through pursed lips for a count of eight. Repeat four times.

Muscscle Stretctching (improves flexibility) Breathe in through the nose for the count of four; as you breathe in, raise your arms straight up overhead; as you breathe out through pursed lips, turn your palms out, extend arms straight out and slowly lower arms. Repeat four times.

Sniffles (to strengthen the diaphragm) Close your mouth and breathe in and out of your nose quickly for 15 to 30 seconds; work your way up to 60 seconds.


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.



Walking at a comfortable pace just 30 minutes five days a week can help alleviate fatigue during chemotherapy treatment. Start slowly, just five minutes twice a day, and work your way up to 30 minutes at least five days a week. If you don’t have 30 minutes to spare in one chunk, break it up and do ten minutes before you leave for the office, ten minutes at lunch and ten minutes before dinner.

Radiation Therapy

Stretching exercises can improve flexibility due to underarm radiation scarring during breast cancer treatment and increase breathing capacity in lung cancer patients. Here are two quick exercises to try:

  • For the arms: Hold both arms to the right and rotate in a circle eight times; then switch your arms to the left and rotate in a circle eight times.
  • For the lungs: Breathe in through the nose for the count of four; as you breathe in raise your arms straight overhead; as you breathe out, turn palms out, extend your arms out and then down to the sides of your body. Repeat four times.


Be sure to clear any exercise program with your doctor following a surgical procedure. This simple shoulder roll exercise can improve arm flexibility following breast surgery and can be done sitting or standing: Place feet hip-width apart, lift ribs and push shoulders down. Put arms straight down alongside the body with palms facing forward and fingers spread apart. Raise shoulders up toward the ears, then push back squeezing shoulder blades together and push shoulders down. Repeat five times.


DO Talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.

DON'T Over exert yourself. “Only do half the amount of exercise repetitions you did before your cancer treatment and then work your way up,” advises Wilson.

DO Find a personal trainer with a medical background to help you launch a fitness program during or after cancer treatment.

DON'T Include exercises to the abdominal area of the body, especially abdominal crunches, for at least two months after surgery. Check with your doctor to see when it’s okay to resume those activities.

DO Know your body and pay attention to the signals it sends you. For example, start a walking, jogging, bicycling or weight training program gradually and see how you feel 24 hours later. If you are overly fatigued or have muscle soreness, reduce your activities and then slowly increase your workout level.

DON'T Get discouraged. “It’s important for patients to understand that their body is not what it was pre-treatment,” says Wilson. “They should just be consistent in their exercise process and be patient, because it takes a long time to get back to the level of activity they were used to before their diagnosis.”