Cancer and exercise
So, you had cancer and want to start exercising, this post is a no frills look at the benefits of exercise post cancer. Whether you were fit before or not, makes no difference, cancer came and went, and we have evolved, we are not the same physically or mentally. I say hit that reset button and find the routine that works for you.
I got together with Tommy, a colon cancer survivor (read his story here) to give you a glimpse of his workouts and my own, and talk about how exercise helps us cope with those lovely post-cancer issues such as anxiety, depression and muscle loss (there’s a long list). It is important to keep moving during treatments (see ‘Exercise during chemo’ post) as well and I would like to acknowledge those people who have life-altering surgeries, such as a pelvic exenteration, I hope to write about this in the future.
OK! Let’s start with some FACTS! I am not a researcher however, I only take information from official cancer pages, and links are available, so if you disapprove of the information referenced, direct it at the original authors! There is an abundance of knowledge out there! The following extract discusses the benefits of exercise during and after cancer. Lifted from Cancer Foundation for Life website.
‘Exercise is of paramount importance in the treatment of cancer. Scientific studies consistently demonstrate unprecedented benefits of exercise throughout the cancer care continuum. There is no medicine or other medical therapy that can provide the benefits achieved from consistent exercise. Cancer patients who exercise not only have a significantly better life, they have a longer life. Self-empowerment experienced through exercise engenders reconciliation, renewed hope for the future, and peace.’
Exercising during and following cancer treatment may achieve the following benefits:
- Improved survival of up to 50%
- Reduced fatigue
- Reduced incidence of chemo brain
- Mitigation of chemotherapy side effects
- Improved sensitivity of the cancer tumor to chemotherapy
- Less depression with improved self-esteem
- Improved brain function with reduced dementia
- Improved heart and lung function
- Reduced morbidity and mortality from co-existing diseases (hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, lung disease, Parkinson’s etc.)
- Improved bone and muscle mass
- Enhanced immune system in the same pathways as targeted therapy
Resources from other industry leaders supporting the positive effects of cancer exercise treatment:
- Cancer And Exercise(National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability)
- Exercise For Cancer Patients: Fitness After Treatment(WebMD)
- Exercises After Breast Cancer Surgery(American Cancer Society)
- Eat Healthy And Get Active(American Cancer Society)
- Physical Activity And Cancer(National Cancer Institute)
- Fitness For Cancer Survivors(IDEA Health And Fitness Association)
- Cancer Prevention and Control(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Physical Activity and the Cancer Patient(American Cancer Society)
- Exercise and Cancer (Cancer Network)
- Exercise and Cancer Care Position Statement(Clinical Oncology Society of Australia)
- Exercise for Cancer Prevention(American Institute for Cancer Research)
- Cancer Perspectives: The Expert Is In(American Society of Clinical Oncology)
- Cancer Perspectives: The Expert Is In Part II(American Society of Clinical Oncology)
- The Simmons Cancer Institute at Southern Illinois University
- Mesothelioma Symptoms
Lifted from Cancer Foundation for Life website.
Now let’s see what Tommy does! I wanted Tommy to contribute as he consistently exercises and is a shining example of ‘making it work’. He works full time, is a husband and dad and made a space at home (for those that cannot get to a gym or prefer working out at home). He is so approachable and supportive to the cancer community and is always willing to help raise awareness. Here’s his fitness story:
‘Before cancer I was not physically fit, I didn’t watch what I was eating, and I didn’t work out. All that changed after a year and a half of procedures, chemo treatments, hospital stays due to infections and a major surgery to remove the cancer.
While recovering from my surgery it was my mission to stay on top of my health. I had just been given a second chance. My body fought hard to win and I didn’t want to let my body down by continuing to neglect it. So, I committed myself to developing a fitness regimen in order to keep my body strong.
While in recovery I started with physical therapy to strengthen my muscles that atrophied during my cancer fight. Once I was deemed fit for standard workout practices, I joined a gym. I walked in and said, “Now what?” I looked at some workouts online, did some running but overall didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t have any prior experience with working out, nor did I know how to properly perform the workouts. So, I spent like a year at the gym directionless and also avoiding others at the gym. Because I didn’t really know what I was doing I was self- conscious. I didn’t want to look like a bozo and end up on one of those social media pages where they highlight people hanging upside down from the lat pull-down machine.
I decided I was going to make a workout space for my wife and I in my garage. I got a squat rack and some weights, and the rest is history. I started a fitness Instagram account, (pardon my shameless plug: @Hittinglifeharder) to track my progress or lack thereof. On Instagram I would follow people who were doing different programs. I would try some out and move on to the next thing if I wasn’t digging it. However, there was a hashtag I kept coming across when I was looking up garage workouts. It was #streetparking.
So, I dug a little deeper and I was seeing people of all ages, skill levels, shapes and sizes doing CrossFit style workouts. A lot of them were only using dumbbells. They were not only doing it in their garage, but they were also doing it in their living rooms with their kids watching. I discovered that these programs were intended for the everyday, full-time parent, workers and people who just don’t have the time to wait on the machine to open up at a gym. It was also a community of support, encouragement and acceptance.
Street Parking is an online workout program/community that puts out a week’s worth of workouts at the beginning of the week. There is a main workout that is programmed each day and there is also a modified version of that workout that is intended for those who are pregnant or postpartum, those returning from an injury, seniors or even kids. There is something for everyone with these programs. When I signed up and began, I never looked back. I had structure and guidance to my fitness. Now I am working out 5 to 6 days a week consistently. It is something that is just part of my life now. It keeps me strong physically and mentally. I have met people who are in the community who have similar stories to mine, who inspire me. Which I believe is one of the things that keeps me consistent with my fitness and health goals. I hope to pass on that inspiration to others who have recently gone through a health crisis and are starting a journey of bettering themselves.
And to be clear, this is not a paid advertisement for Streetparking. It is just an option to consider out of many programs out there. I am always just happy to brag on this program. Find what works best for you and stick with it.
Here is an example of the workouts that Streetparking offers. Below will be the main workout, followed by the modified version of it.’
Main workout: 4 Rounds
16 Alternating Dumbbell Step Ups
Run 200 Meters
16 Shoulder to Overhead
Run 200 Meters
Rest 1 Minute between Rounds
Modified version or “Shift” workout
12 Alternating Unweighted Step Ups
30 Seconds of Continuous Movement*
8 Push Ups
30 Seconds of Continuous Movement
*Continuous Movement Options = Jog/Run, Bike, Row, Single Unders, Taps, or Low Step Ups
No weight needed today!
Love this story and the fact that Tommy’s program is suitable for anyone! Tommy is more than happy to chat with you, if you want some advice on getting started or switching it up. Go across to his Instagram and send him a DM!
My turn now! I was working out since 2016, around six months after my daughter was born. I was doing home workouts by Kayla Itsines (often just body weight – no equipment) then progressed to using dumbbells and bands. I was also running regularly, I would say I was pretty fit. June 2017, I moved back to the UK and was studying then working full time, I would wake up at 5am and do home workouts. I confess I switched a few times, I did Alexia Clark workouts and made loads of friends via his platform then I started BBR (Bodies by Rachel now Move With Us). Slowly, I was more and more fatigued and then I was diagnosed when I returned to South Africa in August 2019.
As you know, I had surgery, chemo, more surgery and a severe infection, then a skin reaction to immunotherapy; it was not a smooth journey. I tried my best to exercise whenever possible during treatments but I really got back into the swing of things around March 2021. I had muscle atrophy, stiff joints, and was generally not fit. Exercise is essential therapy for me. I suffer from anxiety which is heightened with scans, bloods, birthdays and sometimes it rears its head for no apparent reason. When I workout, I feel like I am literally keeping my cancer away, it is a mind set that empowers me. When I feel physically stronger, my mind feels stronger and let’s face it, living after cancer is very tough and we need all the help we can get!
It has taken me time to find my groove, I tried a few things at home and made yoga a regular practice. When my daughter went back to school, I started back at the gym and I go 5/6 times a week. This is my happy place, I realised that home workouts were just not for me. The point is, don’t stop looking until you find what you will be consistent with. Don’t worry about other people, do what makes you happy, do what excites and motivates you! Long story short, I have finally found my feet back with Move with Us by Rachel Dillon and I use Jessica Olie’s app for yoga (she also had workouts which I did for a while). Don’t be afraid to try a bunch of different stuff, maybe you like running, walking, CrossFit, strength training, cardio…..do them all if you want!
So, here’s an example of my gym workouts. I will also do one HIIT and one LISS (they can be gym or home) per week. This program is LEVEL 3, so I am not saying you need to go in this hard, it’s just where I am at after months of other workouts. I also MODIFY when I need to! You do you!
(ALWAYS warm up for five minutes minimum, treadmill, bike, whatever you like.)
Wall slides – 2 rounds 30 secs
Walk out push ups – 2 rounds 30 secs
Upper body weighted
A1 Dumbbell shoulder press (standing) – 4 sets, 10 reps
A2 Barbell bench press (Incline Bench) – 4 sets, 10 reps
B1 Dumbbell seated front raises – 3 sets, 20 reps
B2 Dumbbell flyes – 3 sets, 20 reps
C1 Dumbbell seated shoulder press – 4 sets, 10 reps
C2 Dumbbell chest press – 4 sets, 10 reps
D1 Dumbbell seated lateral raises – 3 sets, 20 reps
D2 Dumbbell shoulder bombs – 3 sets, 20 reps
Warm up 5 mins
A1 Walking lunges – 2 rounds, 30 secs
A2 Jump squats – 2 rounds, 30 secs
Lower Body Weighted
A1 Barbell squats – 4 sets, 10 reps
A2 Barbell reverse lunges – 4 sets, 10 reps E/L
A3 Dumbbell goblet squats – 4 sets, 20 reps
A4 Dumbbell jump squats – 4 sets, 20 reps (I don’t use DBs)
B1 Dumbbell Bulgarian split squats (short stride) – 3 sets, 10 reps E/L
B2 Wall sits (single leg) – 3 rounds 30 secs E/L
B3 Dumbbell side step ups – 3 sets 10 E/L
B4 Jumping lunges – 3 sets, 20 reps (yuk! I can’t ever do 20 at once!)
You can of course remove all weights and do body weight exercises, which I did at the beginning and during treatments. Please, follow the recommendations of your medical team if you are starting out. After a while, you will know what you are capable of and how much you want to push yourself. Make your own goals and go for it! There are loads of fitness programmes out there, including some free apps, I would recommend finding a program to follow as it takes the fuss out of finding workouts etc. We are not advertising any programmes, just giving honest accounts of the steps we have taken so far.
When we are faced with our own mortality, it is life changing and we learn to appreciate our body and how amazing it is. No one’s health is guaranteed but we can certainly do our best to respect our body and fuel it correctly. I hope that Tommy and I have inspired at least one person to move today, feel free to get in touch with either of us, if you want some encouragement! And remember, one day at a time!
Love, Jojo xoxo