The 3,800 Club: Exercising during chemotherapy
I told myself before I began my treatment for breast cancer that as long as I was physically able, I would exercise every day on this journey.
"It’s just one foot in front of the other."
It’s a phrase i’ve silently repeated to myself while hiking mountain trails that in the moment feel too long or too steep for my capabilities. I keep going because deep down I know I can do it and the views waiting at the top (Panorama Ridge comes to mind!) make it well worth the effort!
Lately, it’s this same phrase I tell myself on the tough days when I feel tired and weak from chemotheraphy and don’t even want to get out of bed. But I told myself before I began my treatment for breast cancer that as long as I was physically able, I would exercise every day on this journey. Sometimes, that’s consisted of little more than walking down my driveway and back. But each morning, I make myself do something and my Fitbit keeps me honest. What used to be a run is more of a walk and a jog lately. And on rare days, it even occasionally means a short hike (and a huge nap after!).
I know everyone going through cancer treatment is different and their energy levels can vary widely. When I was diagnosed, I was already doing lots of hiking and running and exercise was part of my daily routine. It’s always been a stress-releiver. It still is. But now, getting outside also helps reduce the nausea. And overall, I feel better when I’m done.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, many doctors now encourage patients to be as active as possible during treatment and recovery for a whole variety of reasons. You can read about some of them here.
At UBC, there have been a series of studies over the last 15 years looking into what’s safe and effective exercise for women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.
According to Kristin Campbell, director of the clinical exercise physiology lab in the UBC Faculty of Medicine, the studies found that "women who were active during their treatment, whether aerobic exercise or weightlifting, had a decrease in cancer-related fatigue and improvements in their quality of life."
She says even if it’s not structured exercise and all you are able to do is get up and move around throughout the day, it can help.
"Anything you can do to get moving a little bit is better than not," she says.
She points out that our province has free-of-charge resources to help patients get started. For example, cancer patients can call Healthlink BC’s 811 number to speak to a qualified exercise professional with cancer specific training about starting an exercise program.
Campbell says there could be additional benefits to exercise as well.
"There’s some early suggestions that being active during your chemotherapy or right after that can be beneficial to reducing the risk of cancer reoccurrence but more work needs to be done to really show that."
She says patients need to talk to their healthcare team before starting any exercise program – even if you exercised before being diagnosed.
As for me, my jog is slow and my stride would impress no one. But I keep at it, one foot in front of the other, hoping that once my treatment is done, I’ll be climbing those mountain trails once again.
Michele Brunoro will be providing ongoing updates during her medical leave on her blog, The 3,800 Club.