Overview

Many doctors recommend low-impact and non-strenuous exercise when going through breast cancer treatment. I know what you’re thinking: “I have breast cancer. I’m trying to take care of my family and life in general. I’m trying to hold down a job through all of this. I’m sick. I’m in pain. I can barely get out of bed. And you want me to do WHAT? Exercise? Are you serious?” I’ve been there.

Luckily, there are different kinds of fun and moderate exercises you can do, such as:

  • walking
  • yoga
  • Pilates
  • tai chi
  • dancing
  • bed and couch movements

And trust me, exercise and movement were vital for my sanity and recovery during my treatment. Here’s some exercising tips as you go through treatment. And don’t forget to communicate with your doctor to ensure you’re exercising at the appropriate exertion level for your condition.

1. Feel free to exercise at your own pace

breast cancer and exercise quote

Start gradually and build upon each day. On the days I was feeling extra spunky, I would park farther away at the hospital parking lot and enjoy a few extra steps on my way to and from treatment. You’ll be surprised how even the smallest effort will help you both physically and emotionally.

2. Even the smallest movement can count

Even during my worst days, when I was couch-bound, I still made an effort to do something. I would do a few leg lifts or slow air punches with my arms while lying on the couch. It helped me mentally more than anything. If you’re bedridden or couch-bound, do some very light movements to keep the blood flowing and lift your spirits.

3. Practice restraint

Honor your body and what you’re going through. A few months after my lumpectomy, I was at the playground with my stepson and decided to chase him across the monkey bars. This was a very normal activity precancer. In that moment, I completely forgot I was post-surgery and in the middle of treatment. As my entire body weight was hanging from the bars, I felt the scar tissue along my breast and side rip and I was in excruciating pain. Oops.

And with side effects like dizziness and vertigo, it doesn’t matter what the latest article says about the health benefits of aerial yoga. Exercises that involve a lot of movement where your head is below your waist can be extremely dangerous. I also learned very quickly that burpees aren’t recommended when you have vertigo.

Even on your good days, don’t forget that you’re going through treatment.

4. Don’t worry about what others think

One of the most important lessons I learned while exercising during treatment was not to worry about others.

I frequently worked out at the gym at my office for strength training and light jogging on the treadmill. I was bald from chemo. Wearing a wig or scarf during my workout was out of the question — they made me too hot. I’m sure I was a sight to behold.

I eventually got to the point where I didn’t care how I looked. I worked out sporting my bald head and lymphedema sleeve and sang along with the tunes on my iPod. What I didn’t anticipate were the countless individuals who approached me to let me know how much I inspired them with my grit and strength to fight.

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5. Remember that exercise has its benefits

Many doctors worry that strength training can trigger the onset of lymphedema, which is the swelling of the soft tissues of the arm. If you’ve had breast cancer surgery, and especially if lymph nodes were removed, you’re inherently at risk for lymphedema. But benefits of exercise may outweigh the risks by far.

For example, exercise triggers apoptosis, the death of cancer cells, and helps cut your odds from dying from cancer.

Exercise can

  • boost energy
  • reduce fatigue
  • prevent weight gain
  • manage stress and anxiety
  • improve bone health
  • improve heart health
  • improve sleep
  • prevent constipation

6. Practice safety

Here are some things to keep in mind while exercising during treatment.

Always talk to your physicians and especially a lymphedema specialist before embarking on an exercise program. They may recommend for you to be fitted with a compression sleeve to help minimize the swelling in your arm.

The routine you used to do before cancer may not be appropriate during treatment. Your doctor can also help clear you on which exercises you can do on your own and which you may need help from a physical therapist.

A little extra motivation

Don’t forget about the endorphins! Exercise produces endorphins in your body, and endorphins help make you feel happy. Being happy is much needed during cancer treatment. When I was in a full-blown cancer funk, I would put on my favorite ‘’80s playlist and dance like I was a teenager again. Even if it was for one or two songs, dancing always lifted my spirits.

Here’s my survivor playlist of upbeat, girl power, cancer blasting music to work out to.

Honor yourself. Love yourself. You’re beautiful. You’re a survivor.

Keep reading: Yoga for breast cancer »


Holly Bertone, CNHP, PMP, is an author of six books, a blogger, healthy living advocate, and breast cancer and Hashimoto’s disease survivor. Not only is she the president and CEO of Pink Fortitude, LLC, but she also racks up an impressive resume with accolades as a public speaker and inspiration for women everywhere. Follow her on Twitter at @PinkFortitude.