Research has shown that physical activity may have beneficial effects for patients with cancer and cancer survivors. Physical activity can improve cardiovascular endurance, fatigue, symptoms, mental health, and quality of life. In addition, there has been research suggesting that physical activity may also improve prognosis as well as reduce cancer recurrence or progression. Because of this research, it is important to make physical activity and exercise part of your cancer treatment and survivorship.
There are some safety issues to consider before starting an exercise program. Because of this, you should start by talking to your provider and healthcare team. They will be able to discuss with you when it is safe to exercise and how to go about getting started. Because exercise programs should be individualized based on your current medical and functional status, you may be referred to a physical therapist to help you with this. A physical therapist can help create an exercise program to meet your individual needs and goals. A physical therapist will help guide you through your exercise routine, supervise your treatment session to ensure that you are doing the exercises correctly and safely, and will also work together with your healthcare provider.
Other considerations and precautions to take to ensure you are being safe while creating and continuing your exercise plan include the following:
- Fatigue: Exercise can help with managing fatigue, which is a very common side effect of cancer treatment. Depending on how you are feeling, you may need to keep your exercise program at a low intensity and/or exercise for a shorter amount of time. You will need to listen to your body and do what works best for you.
- Balance: Some cancers and some treatments can cause changes to your ability to balance, which can lead to falls and injuries. Peripheral neuropathy, which is damage to your nerves that can lead to numbness and tingling, especially in your hands and feet, can also make it harder to balance. If you are more prone to balance issues, ask your provider to suggest exercises to help with this. For example, performing exercises with hand hold support on a sturdy surface such as a countertop may help. You may also want to consider trying a stationary bike instead of a treadmill at first. You can also exercise while someone else is with you to help prevent falls.
- Infection Risk: If your white blood cell count is low, it might not be a good idea to work out in a public gym or pool because of the exposure to germs. If you do go to a public gym or pool, make sure to clean the equipment before and after use and reduce direct exposure and contact of your skin along surfaces. Also, make sure to wash your hands after you are finished. Survivors who have had a bone marrow transplant are usually advised to avoid exposures to public gyms and pools for at least one year after transplantation.
- Bleeding: It is not uncommon for a cancer patient to have low blood counts, which can lead to a lower level of oxygen in their blood or an impaired ability to stop bleeding if it starts. Because of this, your labs should be monitored to ensure that your blood counts are at a safe level. To protect yourself from bleeding, do not participate in contact sports or activities that may result in a fall. Be careful when using a new piece of gym equipment and ask for help using it to prevent bruising.
- Listen to your Body: Always remember that you know YOUR body better than anyone else. It is imperative that you listen to your body while exercising.
Physical activity has many beneficial effects on a number of physical and psychosocial outcomes for patients undergoing cancer treatment and survivors. Sometimes, all it takes is that “first step” and that “first leap”. Remember to always consult with your healthcare provider before starting an exercise routine. It is important that precautions are followed. Your well-being and safety are most important.
Christina graduated in 2012 with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology/Secondary Education from West Chester University. She continued her studies at Temple University in Physical Therapy, graduating with a Doctorate of Physical Therapy in May 2015. Christina began her career in outpatient physical therapy and has worked per diem in both the acute and rehabilitation care settings. She treats a variety of orthopedic and neurological diagnoses in her current role as a staff therapist for Good Shepherd Penn Partners. Recently, Christina developed an interest in Oncology. Last year, Christina’s dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer and her cousin with ovarian cancer. In addition, within the past year, a few of Christina’s friends have also been diagnosed with cancer. Because of her love for family and friends and her passion for physical activity and wellness, she realized that she could help touch so many lives. Christina joined the Oncology Section of American Physical Therapy Association in May 2019 and is beginning to take continue education courses to develop her clinical knowledge and expertise. She instructs indoor cycle and has her Level 1 CrossFit Certification. She enjoys various forms of exercise and other health and wellness related activities and topics.