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The Power of Exercise for Cancer Survivors

CarolMichaelsby Carol Michaels MBA, ACE, ACSM owner of Carol Michaels Fitness and the creator of Recovery Fitness


“I am a four-year breast cancer survivor. Of course this has led to many challenges for me, especially with having to face physical limitations after surgeries. When I first came to the Recovery Fitness class I could not raise my right arm. It was difficult to walk because of extreme pain in my right leg. Any slight movement caused pain in my chest because my chest has been so tight as a result of my bilateral mastectomy. Due to these and other problems, I became very depressed and pretty much gave up on trying doing anything; only leaving home for doctor’s appointments. That changed when I took a chance and began to exercise. After coming to the class twice a week for five months, I can raise my arm straight up without pain. I can walk better and my chest isn’t as tight and sore as it was.  This has given me the confidence I was lacking and I feel good about myself again. There are still rough days, but my exercise class gives me the opportunity to work on my challenges with others that can relate to what I’m dealing with. The class has changed my life and has helped me physically and mentally.”


Judy is a breast cancer survivor. She suffered from the most common side effects of breast cancer such as limited shoulder range of motion, pain, and fatigue. Judy could not raise her arms above her shoulders. Her posture was also affected by the surgery. Her goal was to be able to the things that she liked to do prior to the diagnosis. She wanted to be able to return to work full time and get back to playing tennis.


Judy was able to regain her range of motion and improve her posture. The exercise program helped her to increase her energy level and strength, which enabled her to go back to work full-time without getting tired.  Judy is back to playing tennis and is now even playing at an even higher level.


Cancer surgery and treatment often result in debilitating physical impairments and can take a significant emotional toll on survivors. Although exercise may be the last thing on your mind after diagnosis, the side effects of treatment can be ameliorated by a well-designed program that helps survivors engage in the physical activities they enjoyed prior to diagnosis.


Exercise is not only safe for cancer survivors, but it can also improve overall health and long-term survivorship. The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors engage in 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity, along with at least two strength-training sessions each week. Given both the physical and psychological benefits that exercise can provide, it’s important that we increase awareness regarding its benefits. A good exercise program has the ability to improve a patient’s quality of life and their long-term prognosis. It is critical to raise awareness regarding the benefits of exercise.


Starting an exercise program can be a physical and mental challenge. To get motivated, consider the variety of benefits regular exercise offers.


  1. Decreased Risk of Recurrence – Emerging research suggests that regular physical activity is linked to an increased life expectancy and a decrease in cancer recurrence.


  1. Fewer Side Effects – A proper exercise program will help to reduce the side effects of surgery and treatments. These can include limited range of motion, numbness, stiffness and joint pain.


  1. Reduced Fatigue – Exercise can help increase energy levels and decrease fatigue caused by chemotherapy and radiation so you can maintain your normal daily activities.


  1. Weight Management – About 50-96% of female breast cancer patients experience weight gain, with an increase in fat weight and a loss of muscle weight. Being overweight has been linked to an increased risk in recurrence of breast cancer. Keeping up with an exercise routine will help survivors to maintain their weight and lose body fat.


  1. Boosted Self Confidence – Exercise helps you to clear your mind and find inner strength. Having control over your workout, and as a result your improved health can increase confidence. It can also make it possible for you to continue participating in your favorite sports and physical activities.


Taking Exercise Precautions

Before beginning a cancer exercise program, a cancer survivor must receive medical clearance. It is also important to understand the implications of your particular surgery and the corrective exercises needed to improve recovery.  There are many types of cancers, treatments and late-term side effects, each one affecting survivors in different ways.


I recommend survivors work with a cancer exercise specialist or a physical therapist that can design the best program for your unique situation. Check with your physician or other specialist tracking your survivorship care for recommendations on qualified exercise providers who can create a program based on your treatment plan and fitness level.


Planning an Exercise Program


Cancer survivors should incorporate aerobic exercise, strength training, stretching, posture and balance into their exercise routine. Exercise that focuses on functional fitness will help you to be able to perform the activities of daily living and return to the activities that you enjoy.  For those who were active prior to surgery it is imperative to slowly work back up to your previous level of activity. It is not wise to go back to a gym and continue with a pre-cancer exercise routine. Be patient; returning to your pre-cancer fitness level will take time and should not be rushed.


Find programs, either individual or small group, that will help you to achieve your goals in a warm, friendly setting. The camaraderie and support of a small group can make taking care of your health enjoyable, fun and act like a support group. Exercise will empower you to return to your job and take care of yourself and your family.


Cancer exercise books and DVDs are an essential guide for those who prefer or need to exercise independently. DVDs can also be a valuable tool for those who have a busy schedule or who are unable to leave their house.


Once you start to exercise and have less pain, stiffness and more energy, you will be motivated to continue. All of the cancer survivors I’ve worked with say that engaging in an exercise program is empowering and gives them a sense of control and accomplishment. Remember, the goal is to stay healthy, have fun and be safe. Enjoy the road to recovery!


“I have been attending exercise classes for about a year now, and have benefited physically, mentally and intellectually from this life-changing experience. In my cancer journey over the last 3 1/2 years, I have undergone three 6-month rounds of chemotherapy. I responded well to all treatment, with few side effects, but I wasn’t able to feel great and really get my body back until I began exercising. These classes made me realize how much my balance was affected by cancer treatment and I am happy to report that my balance is now significantly better. I didn’t realize how depleted my energy was until I got back my great energy thanks to a regular exercise program.”



Carol Michaels, MBA, is the creator of Recovery Fitness®, a cancer exercise program developed to improve recovery from cancer surgery and treatments. Carol is a nationally recognized cancer exercise specialist, consultant, author, presenter, and is on the advisory board of numerous cancer organizations.  Her book, Exercises for Cancer Survivors, is a helpful resource for anyone undergoing cancer surgery or treatments.  The book and DVDs can be found on her website



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