Getting Fit After Cancer

By Rita Ross
Reviewed by John D. Hainsworth, MD, and Roy S. Weiner, MD

After Sandy Wade, 61, completed her treatment for breast cancer—two mastectomies, radiation and chemo—she was relieved to learn she was in remission. But the social worker in North Palm Beach, FL, was sent home with no specific instructions about how to recuperate. “I was so tired I could barely leave the house,” she recalls.

One day, Sandy saw a newspaper ad for a cancer-rehabilitation program at Jupiter Medical Center near her home. “I signed up that week,” she says. Sandy began a supervised exercise program that involved walking on a treadmill to strengthen her legs and heart and balancing on stability discs to help steady her gait. Within five weeks, she could climb stairs again and do light housekeeping. “I’ve regained my independence,” says Sandy, who continues to exercise at home. “The program turned my life around.”

Indeed, a growing body of research shows that exercise can fight fatigue, boost strength and improve day-to-day functioning after cancer treatment. It may even help prevent a recurrence. The American Cancer Society (ACS) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) have recently published exercise guidelines for cancer survivors. Both groups agree that cancer survivors should return to their daily activities as quickly as possible to speed recovery.

Take the first step by following the new guidelines. One caveat: Check with your doctor before starting any exercise program. He or she can help you come up with a safe routine based on your health and treatment history.

Get moving!  
Exercise has been shown to improve cardiovascular fitness, strengthen muscles and reduce fatigue, anxiety and depression in cancer survivors, according to the ACS. It also helps keep your weight in check. Active cancer survivors live longer than those who are inactive, says the ACS.

Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (such as walking briskly or playing doubles tennis) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise (such as jumping rope or swimming laps). You can break up your workouts into 10-minute bouts and spread them throughout the week.

Practice yoga
It’s been shown to reduce anxiety, depression and stress in cancer survivors, according to the ACS. A DVD to get you started: Gentle Yoga for Cancer Patients, featuring survivor Lynn Felder (; $19.99).

Pump iron
This helps strengthen muscles weakened by treatments. A University of Pennsylvania study found that breast cancer patients who underwent supervised weight training experienced improvements in muscle strength and less severe lymphedema (swelling of the arms, breasts or chest as a result of surgery to remove lymph nodes near the breasts). The ACSM recommends doing strengthening activities involving all major muscle groups at least two days per week.

Using light hand weights (about two to five pounds each) or soup cans, do gentle arm lifts. Start with 10 slow repetitions; gradually build up to more. Alternate between lifting weights from your sides and in front of your body. Also, use resistance bands to firm up your arms and legs. Tie one to the back of a sturdy chair or the knob of a tightly closed door, and pull the band toward you at belly button height. Release and repeat 10 times.
Tip! For help regaining upper body strength and flexibility, go to, which offers a DVD for breast cancer survivors. 

Take care!
Keep in mind, treatment side effects can increase your risk of exercise-related injuries. The American Cancer Society recommends taking the following precautions:

  • If you have severe anemia, hold off on working out until your condition has improved.
  • If your immune function is compromised, avoid public gyms and pools until your white blood cell count returns to a safe level.
  • If you’re experiencing severe fatigue, stick to just 10 minutes of light exercise daily.
  • If you’re suffering from nerve damage, you may do better riding a stationary bike, for instance, than walking on a treadmill.

Classes for survivors
Check out these websites to find a rehab program or exercise class designed for cancer survivors in your area:

  • For a state-by-state list of cancer rehab experts, go to
  • Livestrong at the YMCA is a 12-week exercise program designed for adult cancer survivors. Fitness instructors trained in cancer rehabilitation work with each participant to meet his or her individual needs. To find a program near you, go to
  • The Pink Ribbon Program ( helps breast cancer survivors regain mobility and strength through Pilates-inspired stretches and other gentle movements.
Published March 2014


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