The following post is the second of a series resulting from preparations for a forthcoming breast cancer conference panel discussion on survivorship.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I was a pediatric intensive care nurse working twelve-hour shifts, a long-distance runner, practiced weight-training, and a gardener. After the diagnosis, these activities came to an abrupt halt. Surgical procedures meant no running for weeks at a time. Weight training was limited by restrictions. Chemotherapy meant avoiding infectious patients, let alone managing critically ill children with my chemo-brain. Gardening was okay, but only so long as I didn’t get cuts or wounds that could become infected due to a lowered WBC.
Surrendering an active lifestyle in exchange for the other side of the bed was not an easy adjustment, and I held out for as long as possible. During treatment I didn’t have the energy to participate in these activities to the same levels as before. I continued running after my first chemotherapy infusion until one day I completed 1 1/2 miles and then completely bonked. I had to walk back home that 1 1/2 miles with bone deep fatigue. Grudgingly, I gave up running while on chemo.
For some, physical activity is a go-to method of stress relief. For many cancer patients, when this tool is needed most, it is unavailable. It requires developing new tools for managing stress.
It’s important for nurses and health care providers who are not physically active to understand that a lack of physical activity actually creates stress for patients who are. It’s one reason your adolescent and young adult patients often become sullen. Physical activity is part of their mind-body connection.
The median age of breast cancer diagnosis is 61, so It follows that many hospital-based exercise classes for breast cancer survivors are structured with the intent of increasing physical activity and function for older, sedentary survivors. While beneficial, these classes may not meet the needs of the physically active, regardless of their age. Breast cancer patients who beg to continue swimming, running, bicycling, and even skiing are not uncommon. Here’s some exercise tips for physically active breast cancer patients:
- Review your level of physical activity with your medical oncologist and surgeon before resuming or starting an exercise program. Surgery remains the cornerstone treatment for breast cancer, and physical restrictions apply post-operatively to promote healing. Mastectomy, reconstruction, and lumpectomies require different periods of recuperation. Some chemotherapy regimens used to fight specific types of breast cancer have potential to affect the heart. Those with metastatic disease may have other restrictions. Forgoing your activity of choice is difficult, but it’s important to remember that taking the time to heal is an investment in overall wellness.
- Consider alternative forms of exercise. Walking is commonly prescribed during treatment. Meditation labyrinths are a great way to get some exercise and practice mindfulness at the same time. Some hospitals, spiritual centers, and churches have them. Ask about stair climbing-I used a Stair Master (once cleared by my surgeon), and did not have the energy to run outdoors. Running machines are another option: If you get tired, you can stop without having to get back home.
- If you are medically cleared to use a gym make sure to bring antibacterial wipes to wipe down the machines before use, if they’re not provided: If you are receiving chemotherapy, you are more prone to infections from opportunistic germs. If you take a yoga class, (another commonly recommended activity for breast cancer patients) bring your own mat, and wear plastic flip-flops to avoid fungal infections from the studio floors.
- Remember, physical fitness is not what you do in the short-term, it’s an accumulation of activity throughout a lifetime. Going through breast cancer treatment tests your body; it’s working hard. Support its healing through good nutrition and adequate rest.