Breast Cancer Issues: Physical Activity During Treatment

The following post is the second of a series resulting from preparations for a forthcoming breast cancer conference panel discussion on survivorship.

by jparadisi 2012

by jparadisi 2012

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.

Doing Nursey Things

Except attending local meetings of organizations representing oncology nursing, and doing continuing education required to maintain my OCN certification, I don’t otherwise do a lot of nursey things on my time off. However, now that I’m an oncology nurse navigator, I feel compelled to get more involved to better serve patients.

Recently, I attended the local Komen Breast Cancer Issues conference. There’s been so many advances in breast cancer treatment since I became a survivor.

A unique feature of this particular conference is that the attendees are a mix of oncology health care providers, breast cancer survivors, and their friends and family. It was the largest gathering in the support of the cure I’ve ever attended.

The keynote speaker was the highlight of the conference: Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS. Patient navigation was created by Dr. Harold Freeman, but Shockney, administrative director of the breast cancer center at Johns Hopkins, is the champion of nurse navigation, and founder the Academy of Oncology Nurse Navigators. While the organization welcomes lay navigators as members, the AONN is dedicated to scientific data supporting patient navigation as a nursing specialty. The author of numerous books, Shockney is also a breast cancer survivor, and I was lucky enough to hear her personal story. Her humor, candor, and authenticity made her an overwhelming success at the conference. At every break, people talked about her, describing which parts of her story most resonated for them.

I briefly met Lillie Shockney at the table where she signed copies of her latest book, Stealing Second Base, about her breast cancer experience. Standing in line with my newly purchased copy, I couldn’t help overhearing the woman in front of me tell Shockney how much she appreciates her work, and listing the multiple times she’d attended her lectures. Pausing, she added, “It sounds like I’m stalking you, but I’m not.”

Every comedian needs a straight man, and this line was too good to let pass. It was my turn. Placing the book on the table for Shockney to sign, I quipped, “I’m a new nurse navigator, and I am stalking you.” She laughed big, and genuine. We talked for a minute or so. She radiates warmth.

Another nursey thing I’m doing: I began reading The Emperor of All Maladies, the Pulitzer-prize winning biography of cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I plan to watch Ken Burn’s three-part documentary based on the book, too. Part one airs tonight (Monday) on PBS (check listings for time), and parts two and three air consecutively the next two nights. Answering the questions and concerns of oncology patients requires an awareness of information presented by the media, and I anticipate being asked if I watched.

So, for a little while, it’s all cancer all the time, on and off working hours.

The funny thing is, I’m enjoying the process.