Why staying active matters when you have cancer – and how to find what’s best for you
Until recently, cancer patients were told to rest as much as possible and advised that this would help them recover. We now know that this isn’t necessarily the case: there is solid and growing evidence that regular exercise can make a significant difference to cancer patients’ recovery and wellbeing – as you will see from current NHS information on cancer and exercise.
This guide explains why exercise is so good for you when you have cancer, why cancer treatment can make exercise a challenge – and what you can do about it, and how to find the right sort of exercise for you.
In this guide:
Why it helps to stay active when you have cancer | Which type of exercise is right for you? | What can happen when you try to exercise? | Helping with fatigue | Helping with pain | Helping with reduced mobility | Helping with anxiety about exercise
Why it helps to stay active when you have cancer
There are so many benefits from being physically active, whether you have cancer, are having treatment, or are recovering. It doesn’t have to be vigorous or strenuous exercise, such as running or weight lifting; even gentle activity, such as yoga-type stretches or seated exercise, and simply walking regularly can:
- increase your energy levels
- stimulate your appetite
- help you relax
- improve your general health and mental well-being
- help you to lose weight and maintain weight loss – if you need to
A 2012 study commissioned by Macmillan Cancer Support showed that regular exercise can also reduce the risk of some types of cancer returning – by about 40% for breast cancer and 50% for colon cancer.
When you are diagnosed with cancer, life becomes a physical, mental and emotional roller-coaster, and it can feel as if you are no longer in control of what happens to you. So, making time for exercise can give you a sense that you are doing something for yourself to help your recovery, which can make you feel much more positive.
It isn’t a case of one size fits all. Cancer and the side effects of treatment can make it hard to exercise – or even to think about exercise. If you are suffering from fatigue or have reduced mobility, exercise can be difficult and may be the last thing you feel like doing.
But there are ways of overcoming this and finding ways to be more physically active – and there is plenty of advice and information available to help you find the type of exercise or physical activity that will suit you best.
Which type of exercise is right for you?
If you are living with cancer, are having cancer treatment, or have recently finished treatment, make sure that you consult your cancer nurse, or your GP, before you start any exercise programme, particularly if you have not exercised for some time.
You need to be sure that exercise is right for you and you need advice on which type of exercise is best for you. Your GP can refer you to a qualified physiotherapist who will design an exercise programme specifically for you and who may recommend other activities that could help, such as yoga, Pilates, or T’ai chi.
What can happen when you try to exercise?
If you have been diagnosed with cancer, you may have experienced pain or discomfort and your treatment will have included some or all of the following: surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormone treatment, pain relief – and more. That’s a lot for a body to cope with, even if you were fit and active before your cancer diagnosis.
So, when you do start to exercise, you could experience some of the following symptoms:
The most common cause of fatigue (feeling very tired) in cancer patients is anaemia. You need the right level of red blood cells to give your body the oxygen it needs to create energy. If you have anaemia have a lower red blood cell count, which means less oxygen and less energy. The result? You become tired more quickly and more easily.
Imbalances in your body’s salt levels or electrolytes (body salts such as magnesium or potassium) can cause fatigue. Some cancers and medicines can affect your electrolyte levels, making it more difficult for your muscles to work properly. A poor diet or not enough food can mean that your body is not getting the nutrients and energy it needs to be able to exercise well. Interrupted sleep or lack of sleep can make your body and mind feel sluggish – and you feel more fatigued.
Pain often comes from the cancer tumour itself, as it puts pressure on nerves, organs or bones. Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery can also damage tissue and nerves, causing pain.
Your mobility is likely to be affected at some point in your treatment – from damage to or pain in your limbs or nerves, or from the fatigue or muscle loss you experience when you have to spend more time in bed and are much less active.
Changes to your body from cancer can make you feel anxious (very worried) about what sort of activity – and how much – would be right for you. Fear of doing more harm than good by doing too much exercise might stop you from exploring safe exercises that could help you feel better.
You may get breathless more easily. Cancers in the lungs or airways can cause breathlessness, as can fluid around the lungs from tumours elsewhere in your body. Different types of treatment can have side effects, such as anaemia, and radiotherapy or surgery on your lungs can also lead to breathlessness.
In this guide we look at some of the things that can help with these symptoms.
Helping with fatigue
Fatigue and sleep
A good night’s sleep and getting the right amount of rest can help you find the energy and motivation to start exercising. And when you exercise, your body releases endorphins – hormones that make us feel better, brighter, and more energised. Here are some suggestions to help you sleep better and to increase your energy.
Aromatherapy oils and balms
If you suffer from insomnia – not sleeping well – try using essential oils such as lavender and chamomile. Applying sleep balms and oils at bedtime or using an aromatherapy diffuser in your bedroom could help you sleep better and feel rested and refreshed when you wake up.
“Helps relaxation in a time of stress and constant thoughts, and so induces sleep.” Live Better With customer.
These can help create the ideal environment to help you get to sleep. Eye-masks, for example, provide a completely dark environment, which can improve the quality of sleep by reducing light triggers. This allows your body to release melatonin – the vital hormone that helps you to sleep.
Iron is a mineral that helps your body make new blood cells and improves your oxygen levels, which, in turn, boosts your energy. Iron supplements are particularly helpful if you have iron deficiency anaemia. Iron supplements come in liquid and tablet form and, if a supplement could help you, it’s important to take the right type – and the right dosage.
Before taking any iron supplement, please ask your doctor if it would be suitable for you and, if so, which type of supplement would be best.
If you want to start exercising, it’s important to eat well, with the right balance of nutrients and foods to boost your energy.
You can find out more from one or more of the cookbooks written specially for people with cancer. The recipes are simple, easy, and varied, helping you to enjoy cooking and eating healthily.
Helping with pain when exercising
If you can reduce your pain, you’ll feel more able to exercise, which helps you to become stronger, and will improve your posture and mobility. This can help ease any muscle tension and aches you may have. It’s a virtuous circle, rather than a vicious circle!
Have a look at some of the things you can do to reduce pain:
Cooling gels can help reduce pain by distracting your nerve endings with a cold sensation. This stops the nerve endings from detecting pain. Cooling gels can also reduce swelling, inflammation and muscle spasms.
Heat packs that reduce pain are an alternative to cooling gels and research has shown how effective heat therapy, together with medication, can be for pain relief. Many cancer units now encourage you to continue using your heat packs while you are in hospital.
“Helps soothe the pain from tumours or treatment; also helps alleviate stress and tension. Soothing and soft.” Live Better With customer.
Although acupuncture cannot treat cancer itself, research has shown that it can be effective in reducing some cancer and cancer treatment symptoms, such as pain. That’s because it works by stimulating endorphins – those pain-reducing hormones mentioned above.
If you want to try acupuncture treatment, make sure that you consult a practitioner who is fully trained and qualified, and experienced in treating cancer patients.
You can learn more about acupuncture and find details of qualified acupuncturists in your area on the British Acupuncture Council’s website. It is the UK’s main regulatory body for traditional acupuncture and has over 3,000 qualified members.
Although acupuncture is no longer available on the NHS in the UK, your specialist nurse, physiotherapist or GP may also be able to recommend a local acupuncturist.
Helping with reduced mobility
You may find that cancer and cancer treatment has made your less mobile than you once were. You may be struggling to maintain your usual exercise routines or return to everyday physical activities, such as walking, housework or gardening. And you may not be sure how to start exercising.
There are, however, many simple and practical exercises that you can do around the home, using some basic, affordable equipment.
These mini-pedal bikes provide an easy way to work out at home while you are rebuilding your strength and energy.
“Some activities such as running made my joints hurt and would cause me to limp. This pedal exerciser was very useful to have an impact-free exercise session.” Live Better With customer.
Hand and forearm exercisers
Gripping and releasing these hand-held exercisers can help you to rebuild or maintain strength in the hands and arms. This will help with daily activities like carrying the shopping or lifting a kettle full of water to make tea.
Exercise resistance bands
These elastic stretch bands are very light and easy to carry; you can pop them into a pocket or a handbag – or even keep them by your chair or bed. Use them in various ways to gently stretch and exercise your arm and leg muscles and those all-important core muscles – the muscles in the middle of your body.
Yoga exercises and mats
Yoga and stretching are some of the simplest exercises to do at home. Studies have shown that yoga helps improve sleep and quality of life in people with cancer.
If you have not practised yoga before, ask your doctor, cancer nurse, or physiotherapist if it’s right for you.
Many yoga teachers offer one-to-one sessions, which could be helpful when you start practising yoga. Make sure that your yoga teacher is fully trained and qualified and is experienced in working with cancer patients. It’s absolutely fine to ask – a good teacher will always be happy to answer your questions!
If you are practising at home, make sure you are in a safe area, for example, near a wall to stand against or close to something secure that you can hold on to. Your balance may not be as reliable as it was, particularly if you have spent time in bed.
Balancing on an exercise ball is a great way to strengthen your core muscles. Core strength helps you to correct your posture – the way you hold and carry yourself – and to maintain good posture and body alignment – the way your head, shoulders, spine, hips, knees and ankles relate to and line up with each other. This will help you overcome the stiffness and muscle aches that incorrect posture can cause.
Helping with anxiety about exercising
One of the biggest barriers to exercising is being unsure of which types of exercise are suitable for people with cancer – and the fear of doing more harm than good. As you’ll have seen at the start of this guide, it’s important to ask your specialist nurse, GP or physiotherapist what is best for you.
Several of the UK’s leading cancer charities offer helpful information about exercise. Macmillan Cancer Support has a free exercise questionnaire and guide, which you can download here. Specialist cancer charities such as Breast Cancer Care, Prostate Cancer UK and Bowel Cancer UK offer free guidance and information on exercise – geared to people with particular types of cancer. Breast Cancer Haven offers yoga, Pilates, T’ai chi and Qi Gong classes and acupuncture sessions at its centres around the UK.
Once you are ready to start, you’ll find many useful books with exercises for people with cancer that can help you to plan your new exercise routine.
Exercise planning books
These contain light physical activity plans specially designed for cancer patients.
“I was told exercise was good to speed recovery but I had no idea how to go about exercising. It was very useful to find this book and learn how to exercise for cancer recovery.” Live Better With customer.
Yoga books and DVDs
Yoga can help reduce fatigue, strengthen your pelvic floor muscles, and increase blood flow, all of which can leave you feeling stronger and fitter. Regular yoga practice can also help you to relax deeply, which is very helpful if having cancer or coping with treatment has made you feel anxious or stressed.
Read more about cancer and exercise in our regular Live Better With blog posts. Topics include yoga and breast cancer, lymphoedema, and making sense of research into the benefits of exercise for people with cancer.
Share your tips on cancer and exercise
Do you have exercise tips that can help when you have cancer or are coping with side effects of cancer treatment? If so, we’d love to hear about your tips, as they could help other people like you. Share your tips with the Live Better With cancer community here.