A recent study from the journal Cancer, an American Cancer Society publication, found that only 35 percent of breast cancer survivors met the current physical activity guidelines and that, within six months of their diagnosis, 59 percent of patients showed a decrease in physical activity.
“Most people think of exercise as a way to prevent illness,” says Sara Hollstein, nurse practitioner for the Path to Survivorship Program at the Cancer Center at Paoli Hospital. “But for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s an important part of treatment and survivorship, too.”
Research has shown that the benefits of exercise during cancer treatment and following cancer treatment are numerous: it can boost your energy, reduce the symptoms of cancer treatment, help you maintain a healthy weight, and lower the risk that your cancer will return not only in breast cancer survivors, but in ovarian and prostate cancers, as well.
With benefits like those, why do some women still struggle to find the time to exercise?
Although every patient is different, Hollstein suspects that it could be a number of reasons. Some women, she says, may be unsure about whether or not exercise is safe during treatment.
"It is safe to exercise during treatment, as long as you take certain precautions and set reasonable goals," she says. "Your health care providers can help you come up with an exercise routine that's right for you based on your medical history, your activity level prior to your diagnosis, and the treatments you're receiving."
She also reminds patients that exercise doesn't necessarily have to be in the gym. Dancing, doing tai-chi or yoga outdoors, and home-based exercise programs can be just as effective and allow more flexibility for busy schedules.
Another potential reason? The emotional toll breast cancer takes can make exercise the last thing on a woman’s mind.
“A cancer diagnosis—no matter what type—can vastly impact all aspects of a person’s life. Finding time to exercise can be difficult and might seem like the last thing on their to-do list,” says Hollstein.
Still, she encourages women to use exercise not only to maintain physical health, but emotional health, as well. Continuing to find time for yourself in the midst of treatment can provide a much-needed outlet and improve overall distress and give patients some control again in their health.
Hollstein also reminds patients to talk to their health care providers about why they are not exercising. They can offer solutions to these problems, and can also refer patients to local Cancer Survivorship programs. These programs encourage patients to engage in post-treatment preventative health and are designed to help cancer survivors maximize their potential by connecting them to cancer-specific exercise programs in the area that provide safe and effective interventions, some of which are free or discounted rates.