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Breast cancer: How exercise can help

Last Update: November 6, 2013; Next update: 2016.

Sports and exercise can have a number of positive effects both during and after treatment for breast cancer, such as improving fitness and quality of life.

For many people, exercise is an important part of getting healthy again after a major illness. It can also help to get over a disease and relieve treatment side effects.

Cancer treatments - whether involving surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or radiation - can have both physical and emotional effects. There may be side effects of varying severity depending on the type of therapy and how intense it is. One common side effect is fatigue. Fatigue is debilitating physical and mental exhaustion. In this kind of situation, almost everyone will feel down from time to time.

How can exercise help during and after treatment?

Regular exercise can help you to maintain or improve your physical fitness. An exercise program suited to your needs can reduce exhaustion and fatigue. This in turn leads to improved wellbeing and may make it easier to cope with fears, worries and feeling down in the dumps. Research suggests that yoga or aerobic sports like jogging, brisk walking or biking can help.

Doing specially targeted exercises with the help of a physiotherapist can also help improve muscle flexibility and strength after surgery, for example if you cannot move your arm properly. Exercise also seems to have a positive effect on symptoms of lymphedema.

Several studies examined the long term effects of physical exercise after a completed course of cancer treatment. The results show that people who exercised after treatment reported a higher quality of life than those who did not. Exercise may also make it easier to cope with the disease, helping women to feel better about their bodies again.

How much exercise is needed for it to be effective?

A mix of conditioning and muscle exercises for 30-45 minutes at least three times a week can help with fatigue and improve wellbeing. Sticking to an exercise program on three days a week rather than doing more intensive training is more effective for women who have had chemotherapy. But more research is needed on the most effective type and intensity of exercise for different groups of women.

A general rule is that it is important to feel comfortable exercising and to adjust your exercise program to your needs. A physiotherapist can help with that, especially when you are just starting out. During phases of physical weakness - for example, after surgery or during chemotherapy - some exercises may no longer be possible or might not be suitable.

Can exercise have side effects?

Overall, doing sports can cause injuries, for example sprains. Starting arm exercises immediately after surgery may make it more difficult for wounds to heal. Too much exercise can be harmful during certain phases of the disease, perhaps because you have anemia or an infection. Studies show that specially targeted exercise programs supervised by trained specialists caused only a few injuries or other side effects.

Some women find it hard to move or they find it depressing if they do not see any progress. Then it might be time to take a break from exercising for a while. Later on, exercise may feel right again. It is important that what you are doing feels right.

Exercise and lymphedema

Lymphedema is a possible complication of having breast cancer surgery. Lymphedema usually involves swelling in the arm due to blocked lymphatic fluid that collects there. This can cause pain and tenderness. Women used to be advised to get plenty of rest after breast cancer surgery. It was thought for a time that exercise increased the risk of developing lymphedema. Studies now show that this is not the case.

Special sports and exercise programs

You can also take part in special sports activities offered as part of cancer follow-up care. Your doctor can prescribe these courses and they will then be covered by your health insurance. Local cancer counseling centers and self-help organizations have information on what is on offer in your area. These special sports groups also offer various sports and leisure activities for people who have completed treatment. Combining sports activities with social outings can offer both physical and emotional support.

Sources

  • Buffart LM, van Uffelen JG, Riphagen II, Brug J, van Mechelen W, Brown WJ et al. Physical and psychosocial benefits of yoga in cancer patients and survivors, a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. BMC Cancer 2012; 12: 559. [PMC free article: PMC3571972] [PubMed: 23181734]
  • Carayol M, Bernard P, Boiche J, Riou F, Mercier B, Cousson-Gelie F et al. Psychological effect of exercise in women with breast cancer receiving adjuvant therapy: what is the optimal dose needed? Ann Oncol 2013; 24(2): 291-300. [PubMed: 23041586]
  • Cramp F, Byron-Daniel J. Exercise for the management of cancer-related fatigue in adults. Cochrane Database Sys Rev 2012; (11): CD006145. [PubMed: 18425939]
  • Fong DY, Ho JW, Hui BP, Lee AM, Macfarlane DJ, Leung SS et al. Physical activity for cancer survivors: meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. BMJ 2012; 344: e70. [PMC free article: PMC3269661] [PubMed: 22294757]
  • McNeely ML, Peddle CJ, Yurick JL, Dayes IS, Mackey JR. Conservative and dietary interventions for cancer-related lymphedema: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Cancer 2011; 117(6): 1136-1148. [PubMed: 21381006]
  • McNeely ML, Campbell K, Ospina M, Rowe BH, Dabbs K, Klassen TP, Mackey J, Courneya K. Exercise interventions for upper-limb dysfunction due to breast cancer treatment. Cochrane Database of Sys Rev 2010; (6): CD005211. [PubMed: 20556760]
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