Exercise for Breast Cancer Survivors

Goa has the second highest number of breast cancer cases in the country after Bangalore, according to Goa-based NGO Muskan, a support group for cancer survivors. If you or a loved one is one of the statistics, this article may be of utmost importance to you. After surviving your breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, you may wonder if you’ll ever regain your strength. Whether or not you were able to stay active during your treatment, regular physical activity will be an important part of your recovery plan. Many breast cancer survivors say that getting and staying active has played a big role in getting their lives back.

Reasons to keep moving:
Regular exercise builds strength and endurance, giving you more energy to do the things you enjoy. It helps restore physical function lost to inactivity or medical treatments. And research demonstrates a strong link between an active lifestyle and a brighter future for breast cancer survivors:

  • Compared to sedentary women, regular exercisers, who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, have a much lower risk of breast cancer recurrence and breast cancer death.
  • Over fifty percent of female breast cancer patients experience weight gain, with an increase in fat weight and a loss of muscle weight. Regular aerobic exercise and resistance training can help mitigate and reverse these effects.
  • Breast cancer surgery often reduces shoulder mobility. Flexibility exercise helps restore a normal range of motion.
  • Increased physical activity after cancer treatment has been consistently linked to better physical function, reduced fatigue, and bodily pain.
  • Physically active survivors have a better emotional well-being and overall quality of life compared to their less active or sedentary peers.

Despite these well-established benefits of exercise after breast cancer, only half of all survivors exercise regularly, often due to concerns about lymphedema and a lack of information about safe and effective exercise.

Lymphedema is swelling in one or more extremities that results from impaired flow of the lymphatic system.The lymphatic system is a network of specialized vessels (lymph vessels) throughout the body whose purpose is to collect excess lymph fluid with proteins, lipids, and waste products from the tissues. This fluid is then carried to the lymph nodes, which filter waste products and contain infection-fighting cells called lymphocytes. The excess fluid in the lymph vessels is eventually returned to the bloodstream. When the lymph vessels are blocked or unable to carry lymph fluid away from the tissues, localized swelling (lymphedema) is the result.

Recent studies have shown that neither aerobic exercise nor resistance training is linked to developing or worsening of breast cancer-related lymphedema. Better yet, one study found that women who followed a slow, progressive strength-training program lowered their risk of developing lymphedema by 35 percent. Not only is strength-training ideal for preventing lymphedema, it also helps build strong bones, good posture, and overall strength.

Safe and effective exercise for survivors:

Breast-cancer survivors should engage in aerobic activities at moderate intensity for a total of 150 minutes per week or vigorous/strenuous intensity for 75 minutes per week; or some combination of moderate and vigorous activities (Schmitz et al., 2010). Most survivors appear to enjoy cycling and/or walking as their primary activities.Recommendations for strength training include performing activities that work the major muscle groups in both the lower and upper body two or three times per week. To improve flexibility, recent recommendations suggest stretching major muscle groups when aerobic and strength-training activities are performed.

From a physiological perspective, physical activity is associated with improved immune function, reduced fatigue, protection from the loss of bone mass (a frequently reported concern among breast-cancer survivors), improved sexual functioning, reduced incontinence, improved sleep, reduced pain, improved balance, and reduced blood pressure and resting heart rate. Physical activity is also an effective mechanism for reducing the burden of mental illness among cancer survivors.

Getting Started
Being active is clearly one of the best things you can do for yourself after breast cancer. To get moving in the right direction, follow these guidelines:
1. Talk with your doctor first. Ask for specific recommendations, limitations, and precautions.

2. Get professional instruction. Consider working with a licensed physical therapist or a certified fitness professional who is experienced in working with breast cancer survivors.

3. Start slowly and be patient.Allow adequate rest in between exercise sessions.
4. Gather support. Get plugged into a community of women who understand what you’re going through.

Shape up and fight cancer!

Research quoted from Breastcancer.org.

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