Why Exercise After Cancer

By Dr. Ed Enriquez DPT
Milan Physical Therapy

Restorative exercise, both aerobic and resistance exercises, are important for health promotion and quality of life of long-term cancer survivors.  Studies demonstrate that declines in muscle strength and cardiopulmonary function among long-term cancer survivors can be improved through structured exercise. These exercises should progress slowly and accommodate an individual’s physical limitations from cancer or other previous or current comorbidities. Well-designed restorative exercise programs can not only improve the quality of life of cancer survivors but can also be life changing.
Not all exercise programs are appropriate for cancer survivors, since some individuals my face particular issues related with post cancer status.
Fatigue: Cancer-related fatigue continues to be a chronic and persistent problem for approximately 33% of long-term breast cancer survivors, and between 17 .1% and 27% of long-term testicular cancer survivors. Fatigue increases in patients with high levels of neuropathy, with Raynaud-like symptoms and with anxiety and depression. Fatigue may be compounded by many years of inactivity and the physical debilitation that accompanies a sedentary lifestyle.
It is well demonstrated that physical activity reduces fatigue. Developing an exercise program for cancer survivors with fatigue must begin and progress slowly. Patients may initially be shocked by their degree of debilitation but will quickly see gains in muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance.
Peripheral Neuropathy’s (Nerves inflammation for this article): Peripheral neuropathy is a side effect of some chemotherapy agents that does not appear to improve over time. Some preliminary studies suggest that exercise may actually improve peripheral neuropathy but no interventions have been discovered that reverse or even prevent the neurologic damage.
Muscular Weakness and Balance: When long term cancer survivors begin to exercise, their balance may be a significant issue. It is important to tailor an exercise prescription to not only strengthen muscles and improve aerobic capacity but also to focus on improving and restoring balance.
Exercises should focus on core and pelvic girdle strength and actual ability to balance on one foot. Improving balance not only reduces fall and fracture risk but also builds movement confidence in the survivor and helps them move with greater coordination
Cardio Pulmonary Complication: Cardiopulmonary complications of cancer treatment can emerge during active treatment but generally become problematic at later stages of survivorship for a wide range of different cancers, such as breast, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and testicular cancer.
Heart failure is an early sign that may occur during some chemotherapy (e.g. trastuzumab, doxirubicin) but may also present years later. Other cardiac complications include hypertension, arrhythmia, arterial stenosis, conduction disorders and valvular disease. Pulmonary effects may be related to chemotherapy or radiation therapy and include radiation pneumonitis, pulmonary fibrosis and a reduction in pulmonary function.
Studies observed that breast cancer survivors have accelerated aging primarily related to severe declines in cardiac function that can be reversed with physical activity. Preliminary evidence suggests that structured exercise rehabilitation in testicular cancer may prevent cardiovascular disease.
While more research is needed to determine the optimal dose, duration, and timing of structured exercise, the evidence is growing to support the notion that progressive exercise programs may not only reverse but also prevent some cardiopulmonary complications of cancer treatment.

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