It will come as a shock to no one that I’m a huge believer that movement heals, and should be considered an integral part of almost all cancer treatment programs with rare exception. The human body is a dynamic machine whose mechanisms thrive on the power derived from the processes initiated by physical activity. Last year, the following headline validated much of what I have preached throughout my cancer experience: Exercise is the Best Cure for Fatigue Caused by Cancer. I believe my exact response was an eloquent “duh,” and from there I dove down the rabbit hole of investigating the importance of exercise before, during, and after cancer treatment. What a thrill it was to find myriad scientific articles and studies proclaiming that not only was exercise a good thing for cancer patients, but that oncology rehabilitation “must” be a component of survivorship programs.
I learned that in places like New Zealand and Australia, depending on the chemo drug administered, they will escort patients directly from the infusion clinic to physical therapy because there is evidence to show that exercise may increase blood flow to tumors at the time when the drugs are most readily available in your body. That there is irrefutable evidence that exercising during treatment reduces the severity of side effects with certain types of cancer, increases the likelihood that the full treatment regimen will be completed, and increases life expectancy by up to 28-44% after particular cancer diagnoses. On multiple occasions, I have been nonchalantly informed that because of the 29 rounds of radiation to my pelvis during the summer of 2015 and subsequent chemotherapy, I have an almost 100% chance of suffering a spontaneous hip fracture by the time I’m 75. This sounds horrifically painful. Apparently, chemotherapy may cause a woman to lose as much bone density in one year as she would in a decade. What is the best way to maintain or improve bone density? Weight bearing exercises. Many patients suffer from peripheral neuropathy, an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous side effect of chemotherapy, in their hands and feet. The condition may cause tingling or burning in the extremities, making sleep elusive, and/or loss of sensation leading to falls and fall-related injuries. One of the best ways to treat peripheral neuropathy, especially early on, are exercises that increase blood flow to the peripheral nerves to improve sensation, and activities that improve strength and mobility to decrease fall risk. Infinitely more simple than the drugs often prescribed with side effects like drowsiness and dizziness. Cancer patients don’t really need anymore of that.
To boot, exercise may also lessen nausea (woohoo!), decrease feelings of anxiety and depression, improve your ability to maintain a social life, decrease fatigue, and improve your ability to take care of your own needs. While it is always lovely and heart warming to have friends and family care for us, it’s important to your spirit and sanity to maintain a sense of independence, even if it’s just doing your own laundry and grocery shopping. Exercise is proactive, and inspires a sense of self care and personal empowerment that helped me to feel in control in a situation that often makes you feel vulnerable and helpless. And please keep in mind, that while I have written the word “exercise” roughly 1,001 times in this post, that could mean a languid walk around the block, or perhaps even the infusion clinic. It’s all relative, but as you can see, the clinical evidence for oncology rehab is screaming at us, and it’s screaming at us to move.
To most people all this jumping up and down (haha) about movement seems like a no-brainer. Of course it makes sense, but for many, many years of cancer treatment, patients were told not to tax themselves, and everyone knows the treatments make you profoundly exhausted. Exercise becomes counterintuitive, but the less you move the less you want to move. I really, really love Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion:
Every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force.
Or, bodies at rest stay at rest, bodies in motion stay in motion. If you’ve been at rest too long, you must exert a little external force to get moving again. It’s science. As well, in the midst of the insanity following a cancer diagnosis, exercise often takes a back seat to all of your appointments, treatments, and general life management. Hear me when I say that in many cases exercise is NOT a luxury, it’s treatment. Refer to clinical evidence above.
It is important to consult with your doctor before beginning any exercise program, and this is even more true for cancer patients. Certain types of bone cancers increase risk of fractures, some chemo’s are known to lower blood pressure for a few days following infusion, some people develop peripheral neuropathy that may increase risk of falls or injury, and some people might have compromised immune systems that preclude time in the gym. For these and numerous other reasons, you want to speak with your doctor and make sure you’re safe, but once that’s done, there are many advantages to implementing a program, keeping in mind that for the cancer patient the intensity and/or types of activities may change daily based on their ever changing cancer body.
In the following weeks we will look at how to get started, different types of exercise that might benefit you or your friend with cancer, and some general guidelines on movement.
As always, thank you for reading!