Exercise and cancer-related surgery – the before and after

Admin Cancer and Exercise, Cancer Surgery, Exercise for Cancer, Exercise Oncology, Exercise Physiology

Surgery is one of the main treatment pathways for people diagnosed with cancer. Surgery can be used by itself or with other treatments (such as chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy). The goal of surgery is usually to remove the cancer from the body or to help repair part of the body that has been affected by cancer. Exercise is used both before surgery (often referred to as prehabilitation) and after surgery (rehabilitation) to help maintain or regain physical functioning.

There are many different types of cancer-related surgery; biopsies, prostatectomy, lumpectomy, mastectomy, colectomy, pneumonectomy, hysterectomy, craniotomy, among others.


To put it simply; “prehab” is treatment that prepares a patient for an upcoming medical event (ie. surgery) whereas “rehab” follows, or runs adjacent to, the commencement of medical treatment.

For someone living with cancer, prehab is often the period that takes place between a cancer diagnosis and the commencement of treatment. The goal of prehab is to prepare an individual to enter cancer treatment in a better state of fitness and health and improves outcomes.


The side effects of cancer and its associated treatment can often have a negative impact on the body, which leads to functional decline and loss of independence.

Exercise prior to cancer-related surgery has been proven to:

  • Decrease post-surgery complications
  • Reduce post-surgery hospitalisation times
  • Enhance rapid recovery to baseline functional capacity after surgery
  • Increase treatment options and surgical candidacy


Exercise rehabilitation takes place during the postoperative period. Even though exercising post-surgery may feel like the last thing you want to do, research shows that the appropriate amount of exercise can help boost energy levels, reduce post-surgery complications, minimise side effects, and enhance your recovery following surgery. 

Exercise after cancer-related surgery has been proven to:

  • Improve physical function – in particularly range of motion and mobility surrounding the surgical site
  • Reduce the impact of post-surgical side effects
  • Enables earlier return to performing activities of daily living


  • Prior to the commencement of an exercise program, individuals with cancer are recommended to undergo pre-screening evaluations. This can be completed by your GP, Physiotherapist or an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP).
  • Comorbidities may have an influence on the prescription of safe, effective, and appropriate prehab/rehab.
  • One size doesn’t fit all. Disease-specific evaluations are important as the goals of prehab/rehab may be different across different cancer streams
  • Following surgery it is recommended that you consult with your surgical team about what exercise you should or shouldn’t be doing in the initial phases of your recovery. An AEP can help with providing advice if you are unsure.
  • Intense exercise is not recommended post-surgery until the wound has healed as it may slow down healing of the surgical site. Once able to return to normal daily activities, exercise levels should be gradually increased whilst also looking out for any changes to the wound or pain levels.
  • It is not a race. Start small and increase gradually as you become more confident with exercising. Remember, every little bit counts.
  • Everyone’s treatment program and background is different, which means everyone’s exercise program needs to be unique as well. The very best way to know what type of exercise to do is to work with an Accredited Exercise Physiologist, as they’re the experts in exercise prescription.

Have you recently undergone cancer-related surgery or need to prepare for upcoming cancer-related surgery? We are here to help support you through your treatment and answer any further questions that you may have about exercise and cancer-related surgery – our Exercise Physiologists are upskilled in oncology care.

Written by Michael Czaplowski, Accredited Exercise Physiologist at Movement Against Cancer