All, Diet, Nutrition & Fitness, Mental wellbeing

Can I exercise throughout chemo?

But can I still do kickboxing whilst having chemotherapy? The BCN nearly fell off her chair with that one, but being able to maintain as much of my regular life (and especially my exercise routine) was massively important to me. And as it turns out, my instincts were right, because in answer to the question “Can I exercise throughout chemo?” the answer is not only yes, yes you can! But also that exercise can be extremely beneficial in helping the chemotherapy to do it’s job.

My history with diet and exercise is complicated, I hated PE at school – I have no co-ordination, can’t hit a tennis ball to save my life and was generally a bit shit at hockey, netball, in fact all of the methods of torture that my school liked to inflict on us on a bi-weekly basis.

Throughout my adult years I have periodically swung between being a complete gym bunny and the polar opposite, a complete slob. Over time, and through a process of elimination, I have worked out what works for me. Running – no, boobs are too big and ankles are too weak; gym – meh; classes – yes; personal training – yes; boxing/kickboxing – hell yes, yes, yes! By the time I got my diagnosis, I was working out 4 – 5 times a week and was in the shape of my life. So understandably I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to continue whilst having treatment.

The research behind exercising throughout chemotherapy


There have been and there continue to be numerous studies related to the benefits of exercise for cancer patients. Research shows exercise can help cancer patients tolerate aggressive treatments, minimise the physical declines and side effects caused by cancer and chemotherapy, including protecting the heart from chemotherapy, counteract cancer-related fatigue, relieve mental distress and improve quality of life.

in May 2018, The Cancer Oncology Society of Australia released the following statement last year which has been backed by 25 other leading cancer organisations.

“Cancer patients who exercise regularly experience fewer and less severe side effects from treatments. They also have a lower relative risk of cancer recurrence and a lower relative risk of dying from their cancer.

If the effects of exercise could be encapsulated in a pill, it would be prescribed to every cancer patient worldwide and viewed as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment. If we had a pill called exercise it would be demanded by cancer patients, prescribed by every cancer specialist, and subsidised by government.”

My experience of exercise with cancer

Exercise - yoga pose

The night I found out that I had cancer, I had a personal training session booked, with the state of my mind that day I completely forgot until my trainer turned up at the door. I told her my news through my tears, and she asked me if I wanted to cancel. I realised that I didn’t – I needed a break from my thoughts at that time, but requested we do a pilates based session instead. It was exactly what I needed, and I genuinely felt my own soul as she guided me through that session. The power of exercise.

Following on from my diagnosis, a friend gave me a copy of the Lance Armstrong book “It’s not about the bike” – whatever your thoughts are regarding the scandal surrounding Lance Armstrong, the fact that he not only beat testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs, but even got back on his bike, let alone compete and the strength of will that took is really quite remarkable. Personally I found the book inspirational, and there was a particular quote “as long as I could move, I was healthy” which really resonated with me – as long as I could move, I felt like I was winning, owning my cancer, in control even if all evidence was to the contrary.

After every chemo, I would take my dogs out for a walk, in fact I would try to walk as much as possible in the days afterwards, even if I had to stop for a little rest partway through. I was still moving. I continued to see my personal trainer – on the non-chemo weeks we would do a full workout, and I would also have my kickboxing lesson, on a chemo week we would do pilates instead. I did workout videos at home – especially when I was jacked up on steroids, and had at-home dance parties with my girls.

I’m pretty certain that my kickboxing efforts were puny – as my neutrophils dropped, I bruised like a peach all the way up my legs from the kicks, but I upped the beetroot and carrot juice and carried on. I was still moving!

Precautions if you are exercising throughout chemotherapy

I’m not completely mad, I made sure to take the following precautions, and would advise others to do the same:

  • make sure to drink enough water as the chemotherapy already leaves you dehydrated
  • if you have a picc-line or port, keep it well protected during exercise to ensure that it does not rub or irritate through your endeavours
  • stop going to group exercise classes or the gym during peak times – gyms are pretty germy places, not wise with a compromised immune system
  • swimming pools should also be completely avoided due to the fact you are basically swimming in human germ soup
  • be careful not to fall, especially if moving quickly on your feet – neuropathy is a common side effect for some chemotherapy regimes which can affect your balance and surefootedness. Take care
  • listen to your body, if it is too much, STOP
  • don’t expect to maintain your previous levels of strength and fitness, you will almost certainly have to adjust your routine to accommodate your weaker self – that is OK!

Exercise after chemo

Following chemo, I moved on to surgery and radiotherapy. After my lumpectomy, the nurses urged me to do my prescribed exercises – which I did religiously, I also continued with my pilates – the more high impact stuff taking a backseat for a while as the jiggle factor was too much for me to take. The pilates was, I believe, instrumental in me getting my flexibility back quickly. After a month, it was time to reintroduce the weights.

Funnily enough, I exercised far less whilst having radiotherapy. Partly due to the fatigue (although ironically exercise is a great way to combat fatigue if you can get yourself off the sofa!) but mainly because by this point I was falling into a black cloud of depression and didn’t want to do anything at all. I still walked quite a bit with my two dogs and worked out once a week, but with nowhere near the oomph that I had done previously. Two months after my last radiotherapy session I decided to take control again, signed back up to the gym and started doing morning yoga sessions with the free app Down Dog. I started to feel like I was healing, more like myself, more in control. The black cloud started to lift – just a little.

It is now over twelve months since I finished treatment, I’m back up to 4 gym classes per week, and I still walk regularly too. I know I rushed it at first – expecting to be able to just pick up my pre-cancer levels straight away and ended up hurting myself. It is important to pace yourself, and build yourself up gradually rather than go all guns blazing. Even something simple like going for a walk or moving more around the house counts and will get you going in the right direction.

I consider exercise to be an integral part of my wellbeing – as much mental as physical. I still struggle with depression and anxiety (thanks for that cancer!) but regular exercise helps – massively, keeping it under control, plus I know that working out regularly with a mixture of cardio and weight-bearing exercise also betters my chances against a recurrence by approximately 40% and also protects me from the post-chemo gift that is a risk of ostoporosiswhich keeps me from bailing on a cold, frosty morning.

Recommended levels of exercise for people with cancer

Dependent on your current ability and fitness levels, the following is what you should be aiming for.

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise (e.g. walking, jogging, cycling, swimming) each week; and,
  • Two to three resistance exercise (i.e. lifting weights) sessions each week involving moderate to vigorous-intensity exercises targeting the major muscle groups.

So what are you waiting for? Time to dig out those trainers…

Support

There are lots of post-cancer exercise and support groups out there – have a look and see what is in your area, your local Macmillan centre may well be able to point you in the right direction.

Also, many local authorities offer free exercise classes and referral schemes so it is worth checking these out or asking your GP

Couch to 5K is a completely free app, and if you fancy taking up running, is a great way to get you going. Once you are ready Park Run is a brilliant free resource

Check out our directory for personal trainer & fitness instructors. This is a new area to lions, tigers and bears, so is currently limited but it is growing regularly so keep checking back.

For more ideas and fitness inspiration, check out our Pinterest board on cancer and fitness

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