It may be the last thing on your mind after a cancer diagnosis, but exercise can ease treatment side effects, boost strength and even help fight the disease itself.
When 34-year-old Monika Carlson got the news that an inoperable tumor was growing in her brain, she asked her doctor an unusual question: “Can I run a marathon?”
She had successfully run 18 marathons, including two that year, even as her cancer grew, and she was training for another. “He looked at me like I was crazy,” she says with a laugh. Carlson had surgery and wasn’t allowed to run for 30 days.
Six months later, 11 days after a potent dose of chemotherapy, she crossed the finish line at the Los Angeles Marathon in a Wonder Woman costume and T-shirt that read “Powered by Chemo.” A friend ran beside her in a Supergirl costume emblazoned with the message “Impossible Things Happen Every Day.”
Studies show exercise is safe for most cancer patients. It also fights fatigue, nausea, depression and possibly the disease itself. “The best news of all is that time and time again, studies have shown exercise is safe, and it’s feasible during treatment,” says Colleen Doyle, director of nutrition and physical activity at the American Cancer Society. “After treatment, it helps reduce the risk of recurrence and increases survival rates for some of the most common cancer types.”
Even better news is that you don’t have to be Wonder Woman or run marathons. Just 150 minutes of moderate exercise—or 75 minutes of vigorous activity—and two days of strength training per week will do. If you or someone you love has cancer, consider these five powerful reasons to get moving.
Fight That Bad Boy
The Number One goal for anyone with cancer is to beat it. In the battle for your life, exercise is your ally. First, physical activity keeps off unnecessary weight, builds muscle, improves bone density, boosts cardio health and acts as an anti-inflammatory. This creates the ideal environment for cells to fight disease.
Second, mounting research suggests that exercise helps fight breast, prostate, colorectal and ovarian cancers. Some studies have found that people who exercise are more likely to complete treatment and survive and less likely to see their cancer return, Doyle says. This marks a major shift in conventional cancer wisdom. Doctors once sent patients to bed to preserve their strength, but now they are urging people to throw off the covers and work out.
Your type of cancer, treatment and level of activity before diagnosis will determine what you can do, so talk with your oncologist about a safe plan. It might range from stretching in bed and walking around the block to practicing yoga or competing in a race.
Show ’em Who’s Boss
Cancer has a way of taking over your life. That’s what happened to Carlson when she learned her headaches weren’t the result of work stress or a neck injury, as doctors initially thought.
They were signs that cancer had grown like a tangled weed in her brainstem.
Carlson is a passionate marketing professional, runner and board member of the Girls on the Run charity in San Diego. After her diagnosis in September 2012, life became a funnel cloud of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
Carlson took her dog for long walks after surgery, and when she felt well enough a month later, she started running again. “It makes me feel like I’m taking charge. Running was part of my routine, and being able to get back to that routine helps me feel more normal,” she adds. “I ran marathons every year, my friends are all runners, and being able to maintain that helped me feel like myself.”
Beat the Blahs
Fatigue is a major problem for people going through radiation and chemotherapy. The solution is counterintuitive but true: activity can help with fatigue.
Staying active was Carlson’s secret weapon against radiation fatigue. She says it gave her the energy to keep up her daily activities. “Some people feel fine, some sleep for 18 hours a day, and some people end up going on disability,” Carlson says of radiation effects. “I started walking three times a week and never got tired enough to miss work.”
Her experience isn’t unique. A study of breast cancer patients found that women who stayed active during treatment not only had more energy to fight the disease, but they also had more energy one and two years later.
Tame Your Tummy
Another unpleasant side effect of treatment is nausea, and managing it will help keep your strength—and spirits—up. Exercise can help with this, too. Exercise aids in digestion and helps you make better choices about what to eat. This adds up to a more settled stomach.
Seize the Day
Carlson is the most positive person with an incurable brain tumor you will meet. Her hope is to keep the tumor from growing so that she can live as long as possible, enjoy friends and family, and yes, run another marathon… or 20.
“I kind of feel like it’s a choice you have to make,” she explains. “You can choose to think about the ‘what ifs,’ or you can focus on today. Focusing on today is what has helped me. I feel mostly fine. I’m more fit than the average person. I’m not in a hospital bed yet. Why worry about that happening?”
Thanks to endorphins—those brain chemicals that trigger pleasant feelings—exercise is a natural mood booster and stress reliever. When you’re fighting for your health, you need both.
“You’re ruining today by worrying about tomorrow. I feel like I’m living the reverse of that,” Carlson says. “I think continuing to run has been a huge help emotionally for me as I’ve gone through all of this.”
Sticking to a workout routine is challenging when you’re healthy, let alone when you’re battling cancer.
“Getting started is often the most difficult step,” says LifeFit Wellness Center wellness coach Ricca Callis. “You may not feel motivated to begin, but it is essential for your health. Get up and get moving.”
|LifeFit Wellness Coach, Ricca Callis suggests a realistic goal-oriented approach.|
Start with a goal.
Researchers recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week. (That’s 30 or 15 minutes a day, five days a week, respectively.)
“Start low and go slow,” Callis says. “Rather than starting aggressively and ending up injured or sore, develop habits you can stick with for a lifetime. If you can only manage 10 minutes of walking, start there and build up slowly.”
Work out with a buddy.
If you make a plan to meet someone at the gym, you’re less likely to skip your exercise session. Group classes are great, too.
Incorporate resistance training.
Resistance exercises are effective twice a week, particularly for people with prostate cancer.
Do you know about our free Breast Cancer Patient Package?
This three-month BMH LifeFit membership includes health and fitness assessments, a personalized exercise prescription, frequent follow-up visits with a wellness specialist and a one-hour session with a registered dietitian. Call 843-522-5635 for more information.
Photos courtesy of Winter 2013 issue of Living Well