Can I Exercise With Cancer?

Many people may receive conflicting advice about exercising during and after cancer treatment. It can be particularly difficult as the disease affects individuals in a variety of ways especially after treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Some surveys suggest that physical activity declines for cancer survivors and stays well below the recommended guidelines to achieve any health benefits.

The adverse effects of the disease and treatment may cause symptoms such as fatigue, weight changes, urinary and bowel problems, peripheral neuropathies, lymphoedema, hot flushes, anxiety, depression and memory changes to name a few and these limit an individual getting back into exercise. However, exercise for cancer survivors not only has shown to improve many of these symptoms, it can also help to prevent future occurrences. Here we outline key questions about exercise and cancer.

Can I exercise during and after treatment of cancer?

Absolutely, the overwhelming evidence now shows the benefits of exercise both during and after treatment. In particular, it helps prevent the decline of physical function without increasing fatigue as well as maintaining independence and well being.

How else can it help?

Increasing physical activity can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and mortality for some cancers as well as reducing the risk of developing other long term conditions.

How much exercise should I do?

Cancer survivors should gradually build up the amount of exercise they do up to the recommended guidelines. This is 5 x 30 minute sessions of moderate activity per day (or 150 minutes per week). This can be broken down into 10 minute sessions of activity if easier.  Moderate intensity relates to increasing your heart and breathing rate but still being able to talk at the same time.

I am slightly older, should I be doing anything else?

The recommendation for over 65’s is to ensure two of the five sessions are aimed at improving muscle strength (strength and conditioning exercises). For ladies where treatment has induced early menopause, strength training should be started immediately to maintain bone and muscle strength.

I’m on immuno-suppression medication, what can I do?

People with a low white blood cell count should avoid high intensity exercise or a large amount of activity. Depending on your situation, you may have been advised to avoid large crowds, groups and confined spaces. During this time, look to implement a home activity programme that includes exercises, gardening, light house work and walking/cycling.

I have lymphedema, can I exercise the arm?

Very much so! The advice and evidence for early mobilisations of the arm is very strong. Start resistance exercises slowly and gradually build up. Also look to wear compression garments provided by the lymphedema clinic.

Are there any considerations I need to take?

There are many considerations to bear in mind. For example, what specific exercises would be suitable for people with balance issues, bone fractures, pain nausea etc. If you are unsure about what to do, contact your cancer specialist and ask for more guidance. Equally, drop me an email and I will be happy to can see if I can help. I was never into exercise before my diagnosis and find it boring.

Here are my key tips to getting started:

- Understand that for long term health, physical activity needs to increase.
- Find activities that you enjoy first and foremost. This may be for example walking, cycling, gardening.
- Try to build up the amount of time you can do by increments of 5 minutes every fortnight. Also ensure you work at a moderate intensity.
- Look to included family and friends to help motivate you along the way.
- Goal setting can be fantastic way to show how well you come on and help you achieve any long term health goals you may have. Have fun and enjoy the journey of feeling fit, healthy and positive.

I’ve compiled a few resources to help you:

1. The Macmillan Cancer website has a fantastic resource library and wealth of information:
2.  Living Well Active: A fantastic Dorset based initiative to bring together all cancer related services and contacts.
3. You can access and find an array of free programmes and offers at:
4. Must See Videos Check out Professor Robert Thomas a leading adviser explaining more about the necessity of exercising during and after cancer:

Useful articles:

1. The importance of physical activity for people living with and beyond cancer. A concise evidence review.
2. American College of Sports Medicine round table consensus statement on exercise guidelines for cancer survivors (2010).
3. ACSM. 3. R.J.Thomas; M. Holm; A.A-Adhami (2014) Physical activity after cancer: An evidence review of the international literature. British journal of Medical Practitioners. Vol 7.