How exercise is important to help cope with cancer

February 04, 2019 02:39 pm | Updated 02:39 pm IST

Portrait of happy African American man wiping off sweat after workout. Horizontal shot. Isolated on white.

Portrait of happy African American man wiping off sweat after workout. Horizontal shot. Isolated on white.

She sat across me, her beautiful hazel eyes darting around the wall behind, thinking of what to say. It was evident she was hunting for the right words to answer my question.

“How do you feel now?” I had asked her a few seconds ago.

A breast cancer survivor, she had gone through a list of problems she wanted my help with, when we had spoken over the phone earlier. She had undergone treatment for the cancer and the medical reports were all okay. But clearly she wasn’t feeling good. She finally answered.

“I constantly feel exhausted and weak. I don’t know why. I thought this tiredness would go away, but it’s stuck. Some days are even worse. I wouldn’t have done anything different, but I just don’t want to get up. Maybe it’s depression and not tiredness. Maybe I am depressed because of this constant exhaustion….” I allowed her to speak on, her statements intermittently sounding like questions, as if seeking my validation.

As we spoke in greater detail, it was clear that her body was caught in a vicious cycle of something or the other not working right. She would address one issue, to lead on to a new one. Her frustration was palpable and understandable.

Cancer is rough and exhausting — physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. If you’ve known someone battling cancer, you’d agree. It takes a lot out of the person and also takes a toll on loved ones around.

I recommended that she embark on a carefully-monitored exercise programme. Even though it appeared counter-intuitive to her feeling of tiredness, it would help her regain strength.

‘Exercise’ your choice

Most people know that exercise helps prevent obesity, regulates hormones, speeds up metabolism and digestion, and reduces the likelihood of smoking in those engaged in high levels of physical activity. All this has a favourable effect on reducing cancer triggers and risk factors. Cancers of the colon, breast, prostate, lung and uterus have been particularly linked to exercise-related prevention.

What is little known, if at all, is that exercise can play an important role in helping someone with the disease actively cope, minimise treatment side-effects, and help in the recovery phase, including recovery from surgery (especially reconstructive). It could also help decrease risk of future cancers. In short, exercise during treatment and post can positively influence cancer survivorship, and more importantly, improve quality of life.

Facing challenges better

It’s no secret that cancer and treatment side-effects are hard to deal with. Chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy throw up different side-effects to varying degrees. Both radiation and chemotherapy compromise the immune system. Hormone therapy may cause osteoporosis, reduction of muscle tone and weight gain. Some types of childhood cancers and treatment types have been found to have long-term negative effects on little hearts and lungs. A few cancer surgeries (especially reconstructive) can leave a lifelong functional deficit in terms of postural implications, strength, flexibility and cardiovascular conditioning.

Safe exercising is important

It’s beneficial to exercise regularly, with the important caveat that it should be done in a highly personalised manner, under the supervision of someone qualified to guide cancer patients. The professional must work closely with the medical team, and must craft a structured programme that takes into account the individual, the cancer type, specific treatment(s) and response to treatment.

Vani B Pahwa is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer, a certified Cancer Exercise Specialist, a Master Rehab Trainer, a Functional Movement, Barefoot Training Specialist, BarefootRX Rehab Specialist, Foot & Gait Analyst, and a BOSU Personal Trainer. She is also a Mohiniyattam dancer

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