Regular exercise is an important part of being healthy for everyone. If you are not already exercising, becoming more active can be a positive change to make in your life when you are living with cancer.

Physical activity can improve quality of life for those with a diagnosis of advanced breast cancer. Exercise is also the best known way of combating fatigue, other than altering those medications which are causing the fatigue.

Being active before, during and after treatment can:
• reduce tiredness (fatigue)
• improve your quality of life
• help look after your heart
• reduce anxiety and depression
• help you maintain a healthy weight
• strengthen your muscles, joints and bones
• improve your flexibility and help keep you supple
• increase your confidence.
• Improve your sleep

Even a little physical activity is better than none at all, so if you are concerned about increasing your activity because you are tired, you can build up slowly. Ask for help if you do not know how to start, do not know what is best for you to do, or are concerned about getting injured. Exercise should not cause pain and should be stopped if it does.

Remember, exercise can lift your spirits if you are feeling low and empowers you because you are doing something positive for yourself.

Being active before treatment

If you know you are going to have surgery, your doctor might encourage you to start some physical activity before the operation. This is to help improve your general fitness level which can help with your recovery after surgery. Your body may also be able to cope better with treatment if you have an active lifestyle. This may mean you have fewer side effects, or that they are less severe.

Some people have to start treatment straight away. But if you don’t, physical activity will help you prepare for future treatment.

Getting started

You may need to be careful with the activities you choose. This will depend on the cancer, your treatment, its side effects and any other medical conditions you have. Your doctor or breast care nurse can give you advice.

Chemotherapy, radiotherapy or recent surgery can affect the type of activity that is safe for you. For example, chemotherapy increases your risk of infection. If your white cells are low, your doctor may advise you to avoid pools or gyms. If you have long term treatment effects, such as lymphoedema or nerve damage, you will also need advice on what is safe.

It is important to get advice before you start becoming more active. Your oncologist, GP or breast care nurse can tell you what type of exercise is most appropriate for you. You can also get support from a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist.

Exercise ideas

There is no one activity that is best for everyone. Choose activities you enjoy and that fit in with your life. If possible, do a mix of activities that improve your aerobic fitness, strength and flexibility.

In NZ, adults are encouraged to be physically active as part of everyday life (e.g. brisk walking for at least 30 minutes daily).
Choose activities you enjoy and, if possible, do a mix of activities. Some examples include the following:

Aerobic exercises

  • Walking, gardening, dancing, running and jogging, cycling or swimming are good for heart health.

Resistance and strength exercise

  • Lifting small weights or ‘sit to stand’ exercises that you can do at home – help strengthen muscle.

Flexibility exercises

  • Stretches, yoga, tai chi or qi gong can improve suppleness

Balance exercises

  • Yoga, tai chi, pilates and qi gong can help with balance and strength.

Tips for getting started include joining a walking group, playing a sport or encouraging your friends and family to join you. Setting yourself realistic targets and keeping a record of your progress will help you to stay active.

Remember, regular and appropriate exercise can improve sleep, enhance relaxation and improve mood.

It can be hard to stay motivated once you begin a routine because you will have good days and days where you feel low. Here are a few tips to keep you going:

  • Make it fun - exercise with others and have a coffee afterwards.
  • Enjoy the solitude of a walk - it's a time for contemplation
  • Alternate the types of exercise you undertake (e.g. walking one day, yoga the next)
  • Reward yourself for doing well with your exercise - perhaps a massage or something else you enjoy
  • Talk to others and see what type of exercise has worked for them
  • Listen to your body and take a break from exercise if you need to - be kind to yourself, especially during treatment.
  • Remember - it is never too late to start, so give it a go!

Additional resources

Certain organisations have designed programmes to specifically help people living with cancer achieve their activity/exercise goals.

PINC & STEEL Cancer Rehabilitation

PINC & STEEL programmes provide individualised, prescribed rehabilitation to men, women and young people diagnosed with cancer; helping them heal as well as possible, and function at optimal levels through every stage of their treatment and recovery.

Auckland University METS programme

The METS programme run by Auckland University is specifically for women with advanced breast cancer helping them to keep up their exercise regimes. The Exercise Sciences Department gives clinical help as well as social support through its METS programme, that helps the women develop an exercise plan that helps increase their stamina and reduce their fatigue. To find out more, speak to your Support Coordinator, call us on 0800 112277 or e-mail [email protected]

How Sweet Louise can help

We are always happy to answer any questions you have and provide support on your journey. Speak to your Support Coordinator, call us on 0800 112277 or e-mail [email protected]

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Thank you to Macmillan Cancer Support UK for their help with these resources.