Cancer diagnosis and treatment can bring about uncomfortable feelings including pain, decreased mobility, stress, and anxiety. For many cancer patients, exercise may be a way to alleviate some of those problems.
People who were physically active before they were diagnosed with cancer may wonder if they can continue participating in the physical activities they used to enjoy. Others, who view a cancer diagnosis as a wake-up call to become less sedentary, may wonder whether they can embark on a new exercise program during or after treatment.
We asked Lara Benusis, head of the Exercise and Yoga Program in Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Integrative Medicine Service, how exercise can support patients undergoing cancer treatment or recovery.
Finding the Right Activity
Ms. Benusis stresses that it’s important for cancer patients and their caregivers to speak with their doctors before undertaking any kind of exercise program. “Often the ability to perceive your own comfort with movement can be clouded by medications that you’re taking,” she says.
Physical and occupational therapy are an important component of recovery for many patients, especially those who have had surgery, but when the sessions end, many people may question how they can return to their regular exercise routine.
She explains that patients who were very active before diagnosis may try to resume exercise too quickly and feel discouraged.
“It’s all about reframing your circumstance and focusing on what you can do today,” she says. “When I work with cancer patients, I try to point out improvements like how far they have come since their surgery, or to focus on the efforts that they’ve made to establish a new exercise routine.”
On the other hand, for those who were not active before their diagnosis, cancer can provide an opportunity to make changes in their lives.
“I try to ask questions about the kinds of things people like to do, and help them reconnect with activities they may have done in the past,” she says. “Not everyone is ready to go to the gym. Exercise may include taking a bike ride with friends or chasing your dog around in the park. If someone enjoys an activity, they are much more likely to continue doing it.”
Multiple studies show that regular physical activity is linked to increased life expectancy after a diagnosis of cancer, in many cases by decreasing the risk of cancer recurrence.
The American Cancer Society, the World Cancer Research Fund, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the US Department of Health and Human Services all advocate physical activity for cancer patients and survivors.
One prospective study of patients with breast cancer found that women who exercised for two and a half hours per week after they had been diagnosed had a 67 percent lower risk of death compared with patients who did no exercise.
A study of patients treated for stage III colorectal cancer found that among those who remained cancer-free six months after surgery and chemotherapy, physical activity reduced the risk of the colorectal cancer subsequently returning or causing death.
“Medical professionals used to tell people to take it easy and rest during cancer treatment,” Ms. Benusis says. “Now it’s about getting up and moving, because we know that’s going to be better for you, your well-being, and your long-term health. Even walking before a chemotherapy session is beneficial, because it gets your circulation going.”
Benefits of Yoga
Many cancer patients find that yoga is a good way to get back into exercise, because it helps people pay attention to their breathing and listen to their bodies.
“As a yoga teacher I’m always looking for where there’s movement,” Ms. Benusis says. “Yoga allows people to identify areas in their bodies where they may have limited movement and also areas where they have greater freedom of movement and a sense of control.”
She adds that cancer patients, and even people in general, can be overwhelmed by the idea of doing yoga because of the many different styles, and the reputation that yoga has for being difficult. “But yoga is always possible, even for patients who are confined to bed,” she says. “Some days, doing yoga may just be about the breath, or about very small movements of certain joints.”
Ms. Benusis also notes that yoga has been shown in many studies to help with sleep problems — a common difficulty for people dealing with cancer. “Yoga helps people fall asleep at night and helps improve the quality of their sleep. It also helps patients to feel alert and stay awake during the day.”
Active yoga produces the same health benefits as do other physical activities.
Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle
“All of us should strive to break our sedentary habits and be more active,” Ms. Benusis concludes. “It’s easy to sit on your couch and watch a movie, but if you go outside and take a walk, you’ll feel much better.”
Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Integrative Medicine Service offers many ways to help you with a fitness program that works for you. Learn more about the classes, workshops, and therapies that we offer.