The Positive Effects of Exercise During Cancer Treatment
When you think of what cancer treatment might be like or even what you’ve witnessed in the past, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Sick people laying in a hospital bed? That’s what I thought of. It’s even an accurate depiction of what I had experienced up to the point I was diagnosed with Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia. I’m happy to say, gone are the days of spending all day in a hospital bed during cancer treatment – at least the expectation of. I wore my own clothes in the hospital, cleaned my own body, made my own bed and even used the hospital kitchenette to heat up and eat the home cooked food that others brought for me. All that said, there is nothing that could have prepared me for the day my oncologist told me how much I should be exercising during treatment.
The old world belief that sick people should spend all of their time resting is becoming an archaic one. While the concept of exercise during chronic illness and cancer has been explored since the 1980’s, it has really gained traction over the last 20 years. In fact, at this very moment, the University of Toronto is conducting studies on exercise oncology – and it is far from the first study of it’s kind.
Take Dr. Kerry Courneya, a Professor out of the University of Alberta who has been doing research on the effect of physical activity during and post-treatment on breast cancer survivors since 2003, and now on colon cancer survivors. Between 2003 – 2005, Dr. Courneya and his team studied exercise as a supportive therapy during and after breast cancer treatment. After 8 years of follow up, the study found that between the exercise group and the control group, there was an 8% higher rate of disease control. In addition to this, a compilation of 26 international studies on the effect of exercise oncology, showed that cancer survivors who exercised the most had a 37% lower risk of dying from cancer than those who exercised the least. All related info can be found here.
So, after a brief moment of thanking myself for maintaining composure, NOT taking on a perfectly healthy and capable individual while I was strapped up to two IV poles – being able to exercise self-control, love and respect for all humankind (regardless of such a seemingly insane suggestion), I had to ask myself, ‘What’s next?’
The very idea of exercising while I was feeling like a human punching bag seemed impossible – an uphill battle I could never win. But one day I woke up and told myself, I was going to give myself the best chance of never ending up in this situation again – and one week after finishing my IV treatment and before starting my maintenance treatment – I started walking. I had great success with walking, had even started running, until my maintenance meds ground me to a complete halt for months. The result of those sedentary months was extreme muscle mass loss and major joint and structural issues, not to mention ongoing and all encompassing fatigue. I knew once I was able to become active again, I wasn’t going to be able to rehabilitate on my own.
As my return to work closes in on me and my energy has started to bounce back, I cannot help but feel significant anxiety over how my body will react to being back in an office environment. Even driving for an hour a day at this point will throw my entire body into a tailspin. So, between 2-2.5 hours of daily commuting, being surrounded by people I miss so much (but are also carrying germs my body is ill-equipped to deal with) and the severe lose of muscle mass I’ve experienced over the last two years, it is a very real cause for concern. Furthermore, I cannot help but consider all of the other people who have and are re-integrating back into society after cancer treatment (or worse, during) and whether they are experiencing my challenges and fears, either lived or anticipated.
Finding rehabilitative resources for cancer patients has proven to be challenging. Not only is personal training and many gym memberships wildly expensive for those of us who need to be on disability or have no income at all, not funded by the government or included in many employer benefits plans, trainers able to work with the specialized needs of cancer survivors just isn’t widely available yet. As implied above, there are many studies being done, and even one exercise oncology program being offered through the University of Alberta, that I am aware of, however, much of exercise oncology is still in the study and trial phase.
Knowing all of this, there is still hope for those of us in need of help NOW. Here are some of the most promising options I have found to date:
Wellspring is an organization spanning almost coast to coast in Canada. Among a plethora of other program types, some of which are based in physical health, they do offer a 20 week cancer exercise program focused on improving flexibility, strength and cardiovascular endurance. The program involves:
- Individual assessment
- Individualized exercise plan
- Supervised group exercise classes twice per week for 20 weeks (40 sessions)
- Transition plan to independent exercise
This program requires a commitment to both onsite and home work also. It is also only offered at some locations. Be sure to check their website for availability by clicking here.
Prescription to Get Active (RxGA)
This is a particularly exciting program that was launched in Ontario about a year ago. As more and more research supports the correlation between lack of physical activity and the onset of chronic illness and cancer, we are starting to see more focus on prevention. This program is designed to help (generally healthy) people who live a sedentary lifestyle to get active!
Participation is as easy and going to your family doctor or oncologist and asking for a literal prescription to get active. With that prescription, you can go online and register yourself on the Prescription to Get Active website to see what participating resources exist in your neighborhood. The website also includes suggestions on simple ways to get started on your own. Click here to visit their website.
It’s important to note that this is NOT supervised activity. While it is geared to generally healthy people, they will not refuse anyone who is able to exercise without supervision.
Alberta Cancer Exercise (ACE)
Alberta Cancer Exercise is a 5 year study being conducted by the University of Alberta and University of Calgary in partnership with many sponsors to evaluate clinic to community based exercise programs. It involves a free 12 week exercise program offered by specially trained facilitators. This program is only available in Alberta at the following locations:
While the Winter 2020 program started in January, you can certainly visit the ACE website and keep a look out for the next season availability. This is a great opportunity to improve your physical conditioning, help protect yourself from future illness and contribute to some of the most cutting edge research being done today! Visit their website here.
A common challenge experienced by thousands of cancer patients across Canada, regardless of the need, is accessibility. While there are hundreds, if not thousands, of online resources available, the complexity of physical rehabilitation after cancer may require supervision to ensure optimal outcome, including managing risk of injury. With the sparse resources that currently exist, getting to one of these programs is impossible for many. That doesn’t mean there is no hope! If there’s something I’ve learned throughout my 26 month long cancer journey, it is this – you don’t very often get things you don’t ask for. So ask…SHAMELESSLY. I know it’s hard. I’ve NEVER been one to ask for help. In fact, I have always, to my detriment, been hellbent on doing everything myself. Let’s just get real for a sec here – THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO BE PRIDEFUL. There are tons of people and organizations out there that are willing to help out if you just ask for what you want.
While I haven’t participated in any of the above mentioned programs due to accessibility, I have spoken to as many people as my breath has allowed about the challenges (and triumphs) I have experienced along the way. As it turns out, I have been very fortunate to find a local gym, BAO Fitness and a non-profit organization, Cancer Assistance Services of Halton Hills, in my small town of 70,000 who has partnered to help me physically rehabilitate. As a person who had trouble accepting help and feels totally embarrassed by my physical disabilities, these organizations have gone above and beyond to uplift and support me. I am truly humbled by these amazing humans.
As I eluded to above, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of speaking with your doctors before participating in any exercise program during or after treatment. In fact, any exercise program offered to oncology patients will undoubtedly require you to provide a consent letter from your oncologist. To avoid the back and forth and for your own safety, you can proactively request this before seeking a suitable program.
Last but certainly not least, no matter what type of professional you are approaching for service, make sure you do your homework – ask them questions, understand their specialties and limitations to ensure they will be the best possible fit for you. While many trainers may not be trained in oncology exercise, they should still be able to determine your thresholds so you aren’t pushed too hard and you progress within your individual ability. Be vigilant because the last thing you want is to pair yourself with someone who doesn’t listen to you. YOU are the one who will suffer the consequences, not them. Doing your due diligence is YOUR responsibility.
For access to the websites of the above mentioned resources and a fairly expansive list of other programs offered across Canada, please visit the Community Support page of this website.
If you have any great resources that you would like to share, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through the Contact Me page of this website.
Until next time, be kind to yourself and keep up the good fight! You’ve got this!