You may have heard that breast cancer is the most common cancer for Australian women but did you know that in the year 2020 it is estimated that breast cancer will make up roughly 14% of new cancer diagnoses? It may also surprise you to know that breast cancer does not discriminate to only females – it can also occur in men, however this is far less common. Due to the ongoing advancements in the treatment of breast cancer, the 5-year survival rate for breast cancer has risen to greater than 90%!
As we have previously touched on, exercise is now recognised as a standard part of medical care for people with cancer due to its ability to help counter the adverse effects of the disease and associated treatments, with many these treatments being utilised in the treatment of breast cancer specifically.
This blog discusses the specific exercise benefits for those living with breast cancer, how much exercise you should be aiming for, and also considerations for those who are wanting to start exercising following a breast cancer diagnosis.
As you may already know, exercise (in particular resistance or strength training) can increase your body’s muscle mass and improve your strength. Weight gain is a common side effect of various breast cancer treatments and while it’s common to be self-conscious about your changed body shape (especially during exercise) it’s important to be kind to yourself during this time. Exercising can lower overall body fat which improves self-esteem, but reducing the fat around your vital organs has the important added benefit of decreasing your risk of developing other chronic conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Upper Limb Function
Throughout treatment for breast cancer you may undergo various surgical procedures. Exercise can help to prepare for upcoming surgery as well as improving your recovery post-surgery. However, it is important to follow advice given by your surgical team to ensure optimal postoperative healing (full recovery likely will take up to 6 weeks). Aerobic exercise (such as walking or stationary cycling) is usually safe during the initial post-surgical period, and in some cases it may also be safe to commence lower body and balance exercises as prescribed by an Exercise Physiologist.
There is a common misconception that it is unsafe to exercise a lymphoedema-affected limb – in fact it is the opposite! Exercise – when prescribed appropriately and gradually – has been shown to improve lymphoedema-associated symptoms without any detrimental effects, with resistance exercise being particularly helpful.
Many of the treatments that can be associated with breast cancer (such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy) can negatively impact your immune function. Exercise, compared to being sedentary, has an overall positive effect on your immune function, at the same time reducing inflammation and thus your overall risk of contracting viruses. This is further discussed in our previous blog “COVID-19, Exercise and Immunity”.
Survival and Prevention
Promising evidence has shown that exercise can improve survivorship following a breast cancer diagnosis if a person follows the cancer-specific exercise guidelines (discussed below). Exercising can also help with both reducing the risk of diagnosis of breast cancer and preventing the recurrence of breast cancer – so it is never too late to start exercising.
Other Benefits include:
- Maintains bone strength
- Increases energy levels
- Improves mood
- Improves sleep quality
- Improves overall quality of life
Let’s reiterate the guidelines that ALL people living with cancer should aim to build towards to get these benefits:
- AT LEAST 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity AEROBIC exercise (the stuff that makes you huff and puff). This includes brisk walking, jogging, cycling, and swimming.
- 2-3 RESISTANCE exercise (the stuff that makes your muscles strong) sessions focusing on larger muscle groups.
- Both AEROBIC and RESISTANCE exercise is recommended, as each type of exercise training has specific benefits and is considered safe during treatment of breast cancer.
If this recommended amount seems like a long way off for you – don’t worry. The good news is that by performing only three 30 minute bouts of moderate intensity aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking) per week you can help reduce cancer-related fatigue, improve physical function, reduce depression and anxiety symptoms, improve sleep quality, and improve health-related quality of life if you’re living with breast cancer.
WHAT ELSE SHOULD BE CONSIDERED WHEN EXERCISING WITH BREAST CANCER?
- Common barriers to exercise for those with breast cancer include fear of worsening of symptoms, discomfort from radiation burns, wigs or compression garments, or not seeing quick improvements. A health professional team can help you overcome these barriers through support, problem solving and goal setting.
- It is important to avoid neglecting or guarding the arm on your affected side, as this can lead to further complications; within advice given, try to use the arm as you normally would.
- If you have just finished active treatment (such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy or immunotherapy) some types of exercise may not be currently suitable; thus exercise options should be discussed further with a health or exercise professional.
- Your current and previous treatment regimes, fitness level, side effects and confidence around exercise will determine the level of supervision required during exercise. We recommend that an initial assessment with an Exercise Physiologist or physiotherapist who has expertise in cancer care be conducted to tailor an exercise regime towards your needs.
Have you recently been diagnosed or are currently living with breast cancer? We are here to help support you through your treatment and answer any further questions that you may have about exercise and breast cancer – our Exercise Physiologists are upskilled in oncology care.
Written by Michael Czaplowski, Accredited Exercise Physiologist at Movement Against Cancer