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Exercise and Breast Cancer

Exercising regularly offers many benefits. It supports our strength, endurance, energy levels, sleep, mental health, body image, self-esteem, mood, overall quality of life as well as our social connection.

Most people with breast cancer undergo surgery of some form and this can lead to temporary or longer-term issues with swelling, discomfort, pain, tightness, impaired range of motion in the shoulder and/or reduced strength through the upper body. Exercise can play a pivotal role in supporting the post-operative recovery process.

Within the first few days after surgery, specific exercises are encouraged. Some of the recommended movements focus on the pumping action of flexing and relaxing muscles. This action, coupled with deep, relaxed breathing, aids in the movement of lymphatic fluid, which can help to decrease or prevent swelling and its accompanying discomfort.

The focus of recommended exercises within the first six to eight weeks after surgery is to help maintain normal function in the shoulder and arm on the affected side. The emphasis is on gently regaining range of motion and pain-free movements while supporting healthy posture.

After this, and with clearance from a doctor, nurse or physiotherapist, people can start to incorporate additional exercises aimed at rebuilding strength through the upper body including the arms, shoulders, chest and back.

Other treatments, such as radiation, may also affect range of motion of the shoulders and upper body. Exercise helps to increase strength and improve flexibility throughout a person’s range of motion, optimizing function in the shoulders while maintaining or improving posture.

Research on the benefits of exercise for breast cancer shows that exercise can help to mitigate side effects from treatments and medications. Some common examples: (1) Medications often prescribed for estrogen receptor positive breast cancers may affect the bones and may cause joint and muscle pain, (2) Certain chemotherapies can cause neuropathy (i.e. pins and needles tingling and/or pain), (3) Radiation can cause fatigue, (4) Appetite and weight changes. In each circumstance, specific exercises are recommended that can help to reduce the severity or may even resolve the side effect.

Exercise is also encouraged for individuals who have, or who are at risk for, lymphedema (i.e. swelling and other symptoms, generally in the hand and/or arm on the side of the body treated by surgery and/or radiation). Current research shows that exercise will not worsen lymphedema. Instead, it may help to improve or maintain function in the affected area and may reduce swelling. Exercise may also help prevent lymphedema from occurring.

Another very important benefit of exercise is that it can greatly improve one’s overall quality of life. When we exercise regularly, we are likely to notice lower stress levels and improved energy, mental health, body image, mood and outlook including how we feel about ourselves, the world around us and what lies ahead. Those who exercise regularly may also increase their hope and confidence as well as their sense of relaxed joy and general well-being.

Exercise also benefits those experiencing cancer-related fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, a sense of isolation or loneliness, excessive worry and depression. For those who prefer to exercise in a group class or program, benefits would also include a sense of community, enhanced motivation and support.

Studies show that exercise may help to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and even increase length of survival, not only by improving cancer outcomes, but by helping to keep the heart and lungs healthy and by preventing, or reducing the impact, of other chronic conditions and diseases.

Overall, exercise plays a very important role after a breast cancer diagnosis no matter what exact diagnosis, stage of disease or treatment protocol one might be undergoing. Research strongly supports regular exercise in order to regain strength and flexibility and to help individuals to be their healthiest selves – body, mind and spirit – for the rest of their lives. It is always best to work with a trained professional (exercise physiologist or exercise therapist) to ensure that you are moving safely based on your current health status. InspireHealth exercise professionals offer one-to-one consultations and a variety of small and larger group programs and classes to support you every step of the way.