DISCLAIMER: ALWAYS ASK YOUR DOCTOR WHAT EXERCISE IS SAFE FOR YOU
Earlier this week I was on a podcast called My First Ultra (check out our episode here, but also definitely listen to the inspiring stories of growth and determination on their other episodes!). I’ve never done an Ultra, but running marathons was a big part of my life before I got sick – running 12 of them (so far!). And since then, being physically active has played a role in my cancer experience – from getting through treatment, to recovering, and throughout my healing process - something for which I know I am very lucky.
I think the benefits of exercise on health are pretty widely understood, but maybe it’s worth saying anyway. There is an old quote attributed to Robert Bulter “If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation”. I’ve never spoken to Dr. Butler, but his words make a lot of sense to me, and are consistent with things I’ve come to learn about the impact of exercise in the cancer setting (when it's possible). It is said to reduce fatigue and anxiety, boost one’s mood, and may even impact recurrence risk, among other things. But I wont just repeat the research. I thought I’d talk a little bit about my experience with exercise and how it intersected with the different aspects of having cancer.
- Cancer Treatment: I tried to maintain some level of exercise during my cancer treatment (largely during chemo and radiation, as I had some restrictions following surgery and during fertility treatments). I’d had a baby less than a year prior, so I didn’t exactly start off in peak physical shape. But I was advised that exercise might help with some side effects, and so I gave it a try. My activity involved lots of walking, and the occasional spin class – and it did seem to help. I remember feeling like it was almost laughable to get the advice that something that would logically make me more tired (exercise) was recommended to help “fight fatigue”, but I ended up glad to have that tip. There are also some side effect-related benefits that exercise is said to have, fighting things like neuropathy and lymphedema – which you should definitely discuss with your doctor if you think it might apply to you.
- Cancer Recovery: But even despite maintaining some level of activity, when active treatment was “done”, I still felt like I had a lot of ground to gain back. And now I wasn’t just playing for managing side effects, I was striving for a level of physical strength (which translated to mental strength as well) that I could use to prove to myself that I wasn’t “weaker” than before I was diagnosed. This took many different forms and quite a lot of time. But setting goals, including ones that felt lofty, played its own parts in my recovery. One was the mind-body impact from the internal dialogue. This was the voice inside that said - "you're not sick, look at what you are doing! You are alive!" And the other, which was helped by the fact I chose goals that involved many miles or feet of elevation, was that I was both mentally and physically putting distance between me and my cancer.
- Healing Process: Saying whether or not exercise has any impact on recurrence for me will be a lifelong observation (not that the impact of any one factor can be isolated), but I can say with confidence that it’s been one of the foundations of my healing. In the aftermath of all the immediate physical changes, a lot of my experience in survivorship has had to do with managing fears and stress for the long haul. Exercise has been such a refuge – as a mood-booster, anxiety-buster, and reflective, meditative time to myself. It has also helped me to make peace with my body. Having cancer has often led me to feel like my body betrayed me. Not by how it looks, but how it works. And I get frustrated, either that it doesn’t work as it used to, or how I believe it should at times. I’ll spare you the details, but exercise and physical activity are a helpful reminder of what I am able to do. And for that I am very grateful.
One of the key missions of Carebetter is to connect people with products and resources that can help make their cancer-impacted lives easier, and we see exercise as an important component. We have a pageon this site that is dedicated to various exercise equipment and subscriptions that we have found useful from managing side effects to generally staying in shape. And I also wanted to highlight a few organizations that are dedicated to bringing their expertise on physical activity to the cancer community. Moving Beyond Cancer Collaborative:A non-profit organization based in Austin, TX that offers accessible and affordable integrative oncology services focused on health and wellness, such as fitness classes and educational seminars. Classes are both in person and online. Yoga Bridge:A non-profit organization offering free yoga classes to people in cancer treatment. They also offer evidence-based coping strategies such as guided relaxation. Yoga Bridge's yoga teachers are specifically trained to teach yoga for cancer. Yoga4Cancer:Yoga class offerings specifically designed to address the physical and emotional impact of cancer. Classes are taught by teachers certified in oncology yoga and offered online 24/7 and in person. Also features the bookYoga For Cancer - a Guide to Managing Side Effects, Boosting Immunity, and Improving Recovery for Cancer Survivors, but Tari Prinster. And finally – it is worth asking your cancer center if they run a program like this (BfitBwell is the University of Colorado hospital’s fitness program for patients in (or recently in) active cancer treatment).
Happy trails, everyone.