Frequently Asked Questions

by Lexi Harlow, Physical Therapy, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance

Very important! The American Cancer Society recommends a physically active lifestyle, along with an appropriate weight and healthful diet, to prevent recurrence, second primary cancers, and other chronic diseases.1 Studies have shown that exercise improves cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, body composition, fatigue, anxiety, depression, self-esteem, happiness, and quality of life in cancer survivors.2 Often, survivors tend to decrease their physical activity levels after being diagnosed with cancer and most continue lower levels of activity through treatment and beyond increasing their overall risk for a second cancer, obesity, diabetes, and/or heart disease.1 Most, if not all, cancer survivors would benefit from a consultation by a physical therapist to help develop a comprehensive exercise program. Physical therapists can make recommendations on the type, frequency, duration, and intensity of exercise. This exercise program should be individualized to your age, diagnosis, treatment, previous activity level, and other medical conditions. Physical therapists can evaluate specific needs in the following areas: strength, flexibility, cardiovascular re-training, scar tissue work after mastectomy/lumpectomy, fatigue, balance, incontinence and neuropathy disorder treatment and to teach lymphedema prevention and/or treatment education.

How can we help you start a safe exercise program?
The Seattle Cancer Care Alliance has physical therapists on staff with expertise in recommending specific exercise programs to cancer survivors with a wide variety of diagnoses and stages of treatment. If you are interested in meeting with a physical therapist at the SCCA, please discuss this further with your doctor, who can make a referral to our department. Survivors who are seen in the Survivorship Program's MOST Clinic can receive a comprehensive evaluation, which will include a discussions of the benefits of exercise and any possible risks. We can also refer you to one of our physical therapists for a consultation. We look forward to helping you meet your physical fitness goals and enhancing your quality of life as a cancer survivor.

For more information on the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Survivorship Program, or to arrange an appointment for yourself, a friend or family member, call 1-866-543-4272, e-mail us at survivor@fhcrc.org. We hope to hear from you soon.

1Doyle C, Kushi LH, Byers T, et al. Nutrition and Physical Activity During and After Cancer Treatment: An American Cancer Society Guide for Informed Choices. CA Cancer J Clin 2006; 56; 323-353.
2Courneya KS. Exercise in cancer survivors: an overview of research. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2003; 35: 1846-1852.

Frequently Asked Questions  

Q: Should I exercise during cancer treatment and recovery?

Research strongly suggests that exercise is not only safe during cancer treatment, but it can also improve physical functioning and many aspects of quality of life. Moderate exercise has been shown to improve fatigue (extreme tiredness), anxiety, and self-esteem. It also helps heart and blood vessel fitness, muscle strength, and body composition. People getting chemotherapy and radiation may need to exercise at a lower intensity for a time, and build up more slowly than people who are not getting cancer treatment. The main goal should be to stay as active as possible.

Q: Are there special precautions survivors should consider?

Certain issues for cancer survivors may prevent or affect their ability to exercise. Some effects of treatment may increase the risk for exercise-related problems. For example:

  • People with severe anemia (low red blood cell counts) should delay activity until the anemia is better.
  • Those with weak immune function should avoid public gyms and other public places until their white blood cell counts return to safe levels.
  • People getting radiation should avoid swimming pools because chlorine may irritate the skin over the treatment area.

For those who were inactive before diagnosis, low-intensity activities should be started and slowly advanced. Certain people should use caution to reduce the risk of falls and injuries:

  • Older people
  • Those with bone disease (cancer in the bones or thinning bones, such as osteoporosis)
  • People with arthritis
  • Anyone with nerve damage

Q: Can regular exercise reduce the risk of cancer coming back?

It is not known whether exercise will reduce the chances that cancer will come back or slow cancer growth. But being overweight or obese has been linked with increased risk of many types of cancer and with the risk of some cancers coming back after treatment. It is known that physical activity can help prevent and reverse weight gain. Physical activity also helps to prevent heart and blood vessel disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. For these reasons, cancer survivors should be encouraged to have a physically active lifestyle.

Source: American Cancer Society, Nutrition and Physical Activity During and After Cancer Treatment: Answers to Common Questions