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Published On: Tue, Aug 21st, 2012

The Importance of Fitness and Exercise Post Illness and During Recovery


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-By Renata Yvonne

There is no doubt that leading an active lifestyle is one of the keys to a happy and healthy life.  What about those who are actively recovering from an illness, such as cancer, or have just beat it?  This topic is near and dear to my heart because my mother is a two-time breast cancer survivor and has endured two mastectomies.  Fitness has been an important component to her successful recovery and research has shown that it can help to reduce the risk of reoccurrence.  Although circumstances may vary on an individual basis, studies show that fitness and exercise help speed up recovery and keep a person healthy after illness.

Exercise can improve recovery 

Once an individual has been diagnosed with a serious illness, such as cancer, most will develop a plan of attack with their physician.  Research has shown that exercise can improve cardiopulmonary fitness and recovery after cancer treatments.  Common cancer treatments include chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Those who were physically active before their diagnosis may need to reduce their activity during these treatments due to fatigue.  However, it is  important to not completely eliminate exercise during this stage. Exercise can increase your energy level and help combat the fatigue caused by the treatments. Those who lead a sedentary lifestyle before their diagnosis may begin a light walking routine or simple stretching.

Exercise can also help alleviate several side effects of cancer treatment. Lymphedema – the accumulation of lymph fluids in the fatty tissue just under the skin – can cause swelling and stiffness in the body. Lymphedema can be caused by the removal of lymph nodes during surgery or scarring of the lymph nodes or vessels during radiation treatment.  Your doctor or physical therapist may be able to suggest certain exercises that can help speed up the draining of lymph fluids.

My mother has experienced lymphedema in her right arm after her first mastectomy which also removed several lymph nodes.  It has been over 20 years since that surgery and her arm is still swollen and cannot be used for injections, to draw blood, or to take blood pressure. Her second mastectomy last year did not require the removal of any lymph nodes so she does not suffer from lymphedema in her other arm.  The doctor suggested simple stretching exercises which helped keep her arm flexible and combat swelling.

Exercise can improve quality of life after recovery

A major concern after conquering an illness such as cancer is quality of life after recovery.  No one wants to fight off cancer only to be left with debilitating side effects. Exercise has been shown to improve many of the common long-term side effects of cancer and cancer treatment such as reduced cardiovascular fitness, reduced muscle strength, and fatigue. Recovering from cancer is not just physical; it is also mental and emotional. Regular exercise can also help reduce the anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem that often occur after battling a serious illness.

One of the side effects of chemotherapy in women is menstrual abnormalities and early menopause.  One study found that up to thirty percent of women who received chemotherapy exhibited amenorrhea – the lack of a menstruation in a woman of reproductive age.  Fitness and exercise can help cut hot flashes and make life more bearable for women who are experiencing menopause symptoms. 

Another side effect of cancer treatment is damage to the nervous system caused by chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy.  Chemotherapy drugs travel through the entire body and can cause this damage in various locations.  This damage can be short-lived or permanent and can cause burning, tingling or sharp pain in the extremities.  As the symptoms get worse, this pain can spread further through the body. The use of exercise and physical therapy can help alleviate this pain and reverse the damage of neuropathy.

Exercise can diminish the chance of a recurrence

After enduring the long and hard treatment process, fully recovering, and regaining a good quality of life, many are worried that their illness may return.  Evidence has shown that persons who have been diagnosed with cancer are at an increased risk for not only other cancers, but also for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and osteoporosis.  Moderate physical activity after treatment has been shown to reduce the onset of such diseases and also reduce the reoccurrence of certain cancers.  Physical activity after breast cancer treatment has been linked to a  26-40% reduction in the risk of breast cancer recurrence and mortality.

Fitness and exercise post disease or during the recovery of illness is extremely important. Whether you have been recently diagnosed with cancer or are in the process of treatments, the first step in a healthy recovery is to consult a doctor.  Since everyone’s situation is different, what may be beneficial in the recovery of one person may actually be detrimental for another.  Most will find that their doctor will suggest a moderate exercise routine along with stretching and a healthy diet.

Renata Yvonne graduated from Rutgers University with a B.S. in Biology and currently works as a QA Analyst at an Emerging Biopharmaceutical Company. In addition to her full-time work, she tutors math and science students and is a freelance writer.  Renata comes from a long line of cancer survivors and is very interested in cutting edge cancer research .

 

 References
Doyle, Coleen, et al., “Nutrition and Physical Activity During and After Cancer Treatment: An American Cancer Society Guide for Informed Choices,” CA Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 2006.
 
“Facing Forward: Life after Cancer Treatment,” National Cancer Institute
 
Lower, Elyse, et al., “The Risk of Premature Menopause Induced by Chemotherapy for Early Breast Cancer,” Journal of Women’s Health & Gender-Based Medicine, September 1999. 
 
“Peripheral Neuropathy Caused By Chemotherapy,” American Cancer Society
 

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