Exercise Can Ease Fatigue of Chemotherapy

If you're diagnosed with cancer, it's normal to have questions, fears, and a feeling of being out of control of your life. Fortunately, there's something you can do. You can start an exercise program.

"While exercise is an important prescription for anyone, it's especially beneficial for those who have been diagnosed with cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy," says Harry Raftopoulos, M.D., respiratory oncologist in New York City and author of Exercises for Chemotherapy Patients. "The evidence is clear that exercise is indeed a cancer-fighting tool that increases energy, controls symptoms, and improves quality of life."

Chemo effects

Each person responds differently to cancer treatment. Your reaction depends on the particular chemotherapy drug you are given. It also depends on your health, as well as the type and extent of cancer.

Some people are able to continue with their work and daily activities. Most people receiving chemotherapy, though, have fatigue, insomnia, depression, loss of appetite, and nausea. Cancer-related fatigue is unlike the fatigue you feel after a hard day's work. It is an extreme mental and physical tiredness that doesn't get better with rest.

In fact, about 70 percent of people who receive chemotherapy feel fatigue so extreme that rest doesn't help. The fatigue keeps them from working or managing their households.

"People undergoing chemo often find their energy level becomes a commodity that must be rationed," says Dr. Raftopoulos.

Your doctor can help reduce the fatigue by giving you medication to increase your production of red cells. He or she may also recommend an exercise program.

Exercise benefits

People undergoing chemotherapy often feel too weak to start a major exercise program. But even light exercise, such as a daily walk around the block, can help. Plus, many stretching and weight-training exercises can be tailored to your capabilities and done while sitting or lying down.

The American Cancer Society says that people receiving chemotherapy who also exercise experience these benefits:

  • Shorter hospital stays

  • Less decline in physical functioning

  • Significantly less fatigue and emotional distress

  • Better sleep

  • Increased self-esteem and confidence

  • Fewer side effects

"In addition, just the act of exercising can help you feel like you have more control over your body and your life--an important issue for people who are living with the uncertainties that come with a cancer diagnosis," says Dr. Raftopoulos.

Designing a program

You can reap the benefits of exercise at home or with a physical therapist or personal trainer.

"Every person with cancer who receives chemotherapy has unique needs and capabilities that must be taken into account as far as exercise is concerned," says Dr. Raftopoulos. "Be sure to check with your doctor before starting to exercise. Depending on your health and the stage of your cancer, there could be some exercises you shouldn't do."

You can make the program fit your needs by changing any of three factors: frequency, intensity, or time.

It's best to start with low-intensity, short-duration activities three days a week. As your body adjusts and gets stronger, you can gradually work a little harder and a little longer at each session. A typical program might have you do aerobic and strengthening exercise on alternate days. You might start with five- to 10-minute sessions and work up to as much as 40 minutes over 15 weeks.

Strengthening exercises will keep your muscles strong so you can perform daily chores with greater ease. Walking and other aerobic activities will increase your endurance. It may take weeks or months for some people to regain their energy. Once chemotherapy is finished, though, normal cells recover. The side effects, including fatigue, ease.

Exercise can help you take charge of your body. You can take responsibility for getting well and feeling better through regular participation. Being active, rather than passive, in the process of recovery will give you strength, courage, and confidence as your treatment continues.

"As you develop physical strength through exercise, you'll gain emotional strength," says Dr. Raftopoulos. "Setting a goal of wellness and taking action toward that goal is the first step in becoming a cancer survivor."


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