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Exercise After Cancer Treatment Improves Health and Lowers Risk of Recurrence

Two women walking a park

Exercise is important for a healthy lifestyle. But it has added health and quality-of-life benefits for cancer survivors. According to the National Cancer Institute, the evidence is in—many studies indicate that higher levels of physical activity are linked to better outcomes and a lower risk of many types of cancer including bladder, breast, colon, endometrial, esophageal, kidney and stomach cancers.

“We know that exercise not only decreases mortality and increases quality of life for cancer patients and survivors, but it also decreases the risks of a cancer coming back or a new cancer taking hold,” says Paola Rossi, M.D., M.S., the manager of clinical operations for lifestyle medicine in cancer survivorship at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, a part of the University of Miami Health System.

Dr. Rossi also co-leads You Got This, an exercise program offered through the cancer center’s Survivorship and Cancer Control program with Tracy Crane, Ph.D., R.D.N., who directs lifestyle medicine and digital health in cancer survivorship and co-leads Sylvester’s Cancer Control Research Program.

One of the barriers that keep some survivors from starting an exercise program is the concern for safety. Some don’t feel comfortable in a typical gym or wellness center. And they’re not sure if they are able to do the exercises everyone else does, Dr. Rossi says.

Exercise can help relieve many of the symptoms among cancer survivors, including fatigue, pain, anxiety and depression, according to Dr. Rossi.

Lina Pink, a stage 1 breast cancer survivor at Sylvester, says joining the cancer center’s exercise program for survivors improved her mood, wellbeing, and health. Committing to a structured program made her accountable, she says, for making herself a priority.

“[With exercise,] my irritability was gone. I was more energetic and willing to try more fun and active things. I made new friends, who I would look forward to seeing at our exercise gatherings. This new energy attracted me to more energetic activities, looking forward to exercising more and doing more outdoor activities with family and friends,” Pink says.

Up to 80% of cancer survivors experience fatigue after treatment.

Exercise has been one of the few interventions shown in studies to improve fatigue.

Exercise also has the power to help address cancer survivors’ elevated risk for cardiovascular disease.

“The American Cancer Society updated its nutrition and physical activity guideline for cancer survivors last year, and it makes specific recommendations for physical activity, including aerobic exercise and resistance training,” says Dr. Crane, one of the authors of the new American Cancer Society guidelines.

Among the cancer society’s physical activity recommendations for cancer survivors:

  • Physical activity assessment and counseling should begin as soon as possible after diagnosis.
  • The goal of the physical activity should be to help patients prepare for treatments, tolerate and respond to treatments, and manage some cancer-related symptoms and treatment-related side effects.
  • To improve long-term health and increase the likelihood of survival, engage in regular physical activity, with consideration of type of cancer, patient health, treatment modalities, and symptoms and side effects.

Survivors who want to exercise outside of medical supervision should keep these tips in mind, according to Dr. Rossi.

Plan ahead. Planning exercise makes it more likely you will do it. Include details—not only the time and place but also things like how long you intend to exercise, what you plan to do and who you are going to exercise with. Plan for a week or more at a time, if possible. Consider including possible challenges and how you can overcome them.

Don’t let fatigue stop you (within reason). Many survivors think that if they’re tired, they cannot move and should save their energy. Even five to 10 minutes of gentle walking can help alleviate fatigue and other symptoms, if you’re feeling up to it.

Start slowly. Slowly and surely is the best way to become more active. Don’t go from no physical activity to 150 minutes a week the first week.

Start with 10-minute walks and build from there.

Try different kinds of activities. Exercise doesn’t mean sweating and suffering through something you don’t like to do. Focus on things you enjoy, like dance.

Even if you’re dancing in your house for 10 minutes to a YouTube video, you are being active. You don’t have to go to any special class to incorporate movement into your routine.

Make exercising a social event. Everything is better with a friend. So, whether it’s a walk, run, bike, swim or dance session, grab a buddy or two. Pairing up also helps to keep you accountable to your exercise plan.

Iliana Suarez, a Realtor Associate in Miami and Sylvester breast cancer survivor, says she always had exercised but stopped during treatment and follow-up.

“I gained weight during that time and wanted to lose it,” Suarez said.

When Drs. Crane and Rossi contacted her about joining Sylvester’s exercise and nutrition program, Suarez and her husband, who she calls her “supporter,” signed up.

“[The program] has been fantastic … and has changed our lives,” she says.

Suarez and her husband lost weight and continue to exercise, walking together every evening. Suarez takes Zoom exercise classes with Sylvester staff every week. She says her pain is gone, and Suarez is enjoying exercise once again.

“You have to set your mind to do it, but for me it has been wonderful,” Suarez says.