Exercise key for cancer patients: Improved mood, reduced fatigue, lower risk among benefits

Michelle Graham

More individuals than ever are seeking healthy lifestyle programs. Cancer patients and survivors are a very interesting and complex population seeking to maintain good health. Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of working with many individuals who were either fighting cancer or fighting to stay cancer free.

A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, frightening and downright depressing. Fear of the unknown during a cancer diagnosis looms heavily. But there can be hope during this time of crisis. Exercise can be key in the treatment of cancer on many levels. A person’s social, physical and mental well-being can each be treated and embraced through a good exercise program during and after a cancer diagnosis.

The fact that exercise and proper eating can prevent certain cancers is well documented. According to Dr. Kerry Courneya, a cancer researcher at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, recent studies show that higher levels of physical activity are associated with a reduced risk of recurrence of some cancers. This is great news for those diagnosed and affirms that it is never too late to get started on a good, well-rounded program tailored to your needs.

In contrast, other studies report that being overweight after completing cancer treatment can be associated with lower survival rates. Great research in both colorectal and breast cancer indicate that better physical health, including exercise, reduces risk of recurrence.

Some of the benefits of exercise for cancer patients are much like those for the general population. Improved mood, reduced fatigue and greater self-confidence are just a few of the ways exercise can help someone dealing with cancer. Of course, before starting any exercise program you should always consult your physician to discuss what type is appropriate for you based on your condition and the type of cancer you have.

For cancer patients, risks associated with exercise are very similar to the risks that otherwise healthy people face. Soreness, strains and sprains are typically most common. There also may be a slightly higher risk of cardiovascular problems for individuals fighting cancer. Mindfulness and common sense are critical to your success.

The structure of a well-rounded routine consists of stretching exercises, cardiovascular exercise and weight training. Stretching exercises are important to maintain and enhance flexibility and mobility. Cardiovascular endurance exercise is key as it helps to maintain or improve endurance and burn calories to help with weight maintenance. Resistance training will enhance strength and build muscle mass. Incorporating all facets of fitness is critical to the overall long-term recovery and well-being of the patient and survivor.

In the past five months, I had the overwhelmingly positive experience of working with two amazing people who are fighting cancer. They each dealt very bravely and courageously with the diagnosis and throughout their cancer treatment. Each embraced a healthy lifestyle, making exercise a priority in their treatment.

In fact, one of them said that she found great strength and solace in coming to the YMCA to exercise. It paid off greatly on many levels, not just from a physical perspective, but also socially and mentally. She taught me a great deal about dealing with adversity over these last few months and I truly have treasured our time together.

Any cancer diagnosis is devastating. Finding comfort and guidance from friends and family can be crucial. Finding a way to incorporate exercise can be very beneficial and even lifesaving. Of course, exercise may not be appropriate for everyone. However, for many people fighting cancer, engaging in a well-rounded exercise routine just may be the right remedy to heal physically, mentally, socially and emotionally.

Michelle L. Graham, MS, is wellness director for Watertown’s Downtown YMCA. Contact her at ymca_mgraham@yahoo.com. Her column appears in every issue.