Alberta Cancer Foundation

How to Exercise with Cancer

Muscle weakness, shortness of breath, scar tissue — these are just a few of the side-effects you may encounter as you go through your cancer experience. One achievable way to manage these side-effects is through exercise, says Dr. Nicole Culos-Reed.

Culos-Reed is a professor in the faculty of kinesiology at the University of Calgary and co-lead of Alberta Cancer Exercise (ACE), a community exercise program for people living with cancer. She says it’s never too late to start exercising, and regardless of the type of cancer you’re living with or where you are in your cancer journey, exercise has proven physical, psychological and social benefits.

Here, Culos-Reed offers some useful exercise tips and modifications for breast, head and neck, lung, and prostate cancer patients but recommends touching base with your doctor before beginning a new program or activity. And, keep in mind that when it comes to an exercise routine, there’s no one-size-fits-all regimen — while a tailored program can help mitigate specific side-effects of cancer, any activity that gets you moving is beneficial.

Exercising With Breast Cancer

Culos-Reed says that group circuit training can be a fun, social way to incorporate exercise into your week. If you’re undergoing breast cancer surgery, your circuit training routine might be modified to focus on exercises that rehabilitate and strengthen the pectoral and back muscles. Another common outcome of breast cancer surgery can be the buildup of scar tissue, so additional tailoring might involve more chest stretches to improve the arm’s range of motion. Culos-Reed says that range of motion is something to consult with a physiotherapist about to ensure the right exercises are being done.

Exercises To Try

Culos-Reed recommends that before you focus on building your general fitness, modify your circuit program so you’re strengthening your upper body and your core. For example, bicep curls and modified push-ups strengthen muscles in the upper body, while exercises with balance boards, planks and sit-ups develop a strong, stable core.

Can I Still Exercise With Lymphedema?

The swelling of one hand, arm or breast, known as lymphedema, can be a common outcome of breast cancer surgery or radiation. “We know that general exercise does not increase lymphedema, but you should never feel tingling, heaviness or swelling in the hands,” says Culos-Reed. “If you do, you may need to wear a compression sleeve or cuff while exercising.”

Exercising With Head And Neck Cancer

A weight-training program could be a great way to begin incorporating some movement into your week, as a common result of head and neck cancer treatment and surgery can be the loss of lean muscle mass.

“There should be less focus on aerobic exercise and more focus on building muscle mass through resistance training,” says Culos-Reed. “You don’t want to burn more calories than you need to burn.”

Exercises To Try

Particularly after surgery, Culos- Reed says resistance training exercises will be rehab-focused to strengthen muscles impacted by the surgery. The trapezius — the triangle-shaped muscle behind your neck and upper back — is often the muscle that’s most impacted by surgery. Exercises like lateral pulldowns or upright rows require you to squeeze your shoulder blades together, strengthening various muscles in the upper back and neck.

Is It Only About the Weights?

While your workouts will likely focus on rehabilitation and resistance training, that doesn’t mean you should avoid aerobic exercise altogether. Culos-Reed recommends short walks and says that bursts of aerobic exercise with lots of recovery can help with the management of cancer-related fatigue.

Exercising With Lung Cancer

Try to focus your weekly exercise regimen on slowly building up your aerobic capacity. Common side-effects of living and exercising with lung cancer include shortness of breath, particularly after surgery.

Workout Suggestions

Because cardiovascular exercise increases your breathing rate, the amount of cardio exercise you do will increase incrementally. Whether you’re walking, jogging, spinning or swimming, you’re working your body and so your breathing rate will increase, but you should still feel in control. “Start really low and work up the time you spend doing cardio,” says Culos-Reed. “You might begin with five-minute increments of exercise. Work lots of rest and recovery into the aerobic activity as you build up your tolerance.”

Is It Safe To Do My Favourite Form of Cardio?

In short, yes — but there might be a little modification required. “If you love a certain exercise, it can be adapted so you can continue to do it in a safe way,” says Culos-Reed. “An effective workout is about tailoring exercise based on what your body needs and on your exercise preferences.”

Exercising With Prostate Cancer

Common side-effects of prostate cancer and its treatment include the weakening of the pelvic floor muscles and challenges with incontinence, so modify your exercise routine to incorporate movements that strengthen the core. With a personalized resistance training program and yoga, you’ll learn how to properly activate and release the pelvic floor muscles.

Workout Suggestions

According to Mike Dew, project coordinator of the prostate cancer-specific program TrueNTH Lifestyle Management, resistance- based exercises like planks and one-leg balances can help to improve the strength of the pelvic floor muscles. Incorporating these exercises into a circuit program of eight to 12 exercises will result in a full-body workout. Culos-Reed adds that choosing aerobic exercise where you have easy access to washrooms — walking on a treadmill at a fitness centre as opposed to long hikes in the wilderness, for example — might be a practical modification to consider.

Can I Ride My Bike?

According to Culos-Reed, there’s no evidence at all to suggest that biking is unsafe. “If it feels comfortable, it’s okay. Some men feel more comfortable on a recumbent bike versus an upright bike after surgery, but that modification is personal preference,” says Culos-Reed. “If you love biking, absolutely find a way to get back to it.”

Less than 1/3 of cancer survivors self-report that they are meeting the minimum amount of physical activity suggested by the Canadian Physical Health Guidelines.