Breast cancer: How exercise can help

Photo of a woman doing Nordic walking (PantherMedia / Jan Mika)

Sports and exercise can have a number of positive effects both during and after treatment for breast cancer, such as improving fitness and quality of life.

For many people, exercise is an important part of getting healthy again after a major illness. It can also help to get over a disease and relieve side effects of treatment.

Cancer treatments – such as surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or radiation – can have both physical and emotional effects. There may be side effects of varying severity depending on the type of therapy and how intense it is. One common side effect is fatigue. Fatigue is debilitating physical and mental exhaustion. Most people in this situation will feel down from time to time.

How can exercise help during and after treatment?

Regular exercise can help women to maintain or improve their physical fitness. An exercise program suited to their needs can reduce exhaustion and fatigue, as well as improve sleep. This can in turn improve their wellbeing and may make it easier to cope with fears, worries and feeling down. Research suggests that yoga or aerobic sports like jogging, brisk walking or cycling can help.

Doing specific exercises with the help of a physiotherapist can also help improve mobility and muscle strength after surgery, for example if you can’t move your arm properly. Movement can also have a positive effect on the symptoms caused by lymphedema.

Several studies have looked into the long-term effects of physical exercise after cancer treatment. The results show that people who were physically active after treatment reported a higher quality of life than those who did not. Exercise may make it easier to cope with the disease, helping women to feel better about their bodies again.

How much exercise is needed for it to be effective?

A mix of fitness and strength training for 30-45 minutes at least three times a week can help reduce fatigue and improve wellbeing. In women who have had chemotherapy, it is more effective to do smaller amounts of exercise on three days a week rather than doing more intensive training. But more research is needed on the most effective type and intensity of exercise for different groups of women.

It is generally important to feel comfortable exercising and to adjust your exercise program to your needs. A physiotherapist can help with that, especially when you are just starting out. During phases of physical weakness – for example, after surgery or during chemotherapy – some exercises may no longer be possible or might not be suitable.

Can exercise have side effects?

Doing sports can, of course, generally cause injuries such as sprains. Starting arm exercises immediately after surgery may make it more difficult for wounds to heal. Too much exercise can be harmful during certain phases of the disease, for instance if someone has anemia or an infection. Studies show that special exercise programs supervised by trained specialists caused only a few injuries or other side effects.

Some women find it hard to move, or they find it depressing if they don’t see any progress. Then it might be time to take a break from exercising for a while. They may feel like doing more exercise at a later time. It is important to only do things that feel right.

Exercise and lymphedema

Lymphedema is a possible complication of breast cancer surgery. It is usually associated with swelling in the arm due to lymphatic fluid that builds up there. This can cause symptoms such as pain and tenderness. Women used to be advised to get plenty of rest after breast cancer surgery. It was thought that exercise increased the risk of developing lymphedema. Studies have now shown that this is not the case.

Where can I find suitable sports activities?

In Germany, special sports activities are offered as part of follow-up care after cancer treatment. If they are prescribed by a doctor, they are covered by statutory health insurers. Local cancer information centers and self-help organizations can provide information on what is on offer in your area. Special sports groups for cancer patients also offer various sports and leisure activities for people who have had cancer treatment. Combining sports activities with social events can offer both physical and emotional support.