Starting exercise after chemotherapy


Cancer treatment can put a heavy strain on your body, with symptoms ranging from fatigue and loss of appetite to anaemia and nausea. While you may not relish the thought of exercise once your treatment has ended, evidence suggests that gentle, regular exercise can help to reduce some of those symptoms, keep your bones and heart healthy, manage stress, anxiety and depression, and even lower the risk of cancer returning.

Get advice
Before you start exercising post-chemotherapy, it is wise to seek and heed advice from your GP, cancer specialist or physiotherapist. What you can and should be doing in terms of exercise will largely depend on the type of cancer you have, the symptoms you may have developed during chemo, your pre-chemo level of fitness, and what kind of chemotherapy drug you were treated with. For instance, chemo often leaves you more vulnerable to infections, which may mean exercising at home is the best option. Anaemia and the fatigue so often associated with treatment may also restrict your ability to exercise, so professional advice is essential. A physic or specialist cancer doctor should be able to give you tips on starting, and offer fitness ideas if you have specific problems arising from treatment.

In some areas, there are exercise referral schemes available, where you can take part in activities such as walking, tai chi or Pilates, and where a qualified trainer is on hand to advise on the best form of activity for your specific circumstances. Ask your GP or hospital for details of what may be available in your area. Macmillan Cancer Support also offer a free Get Active, Feel Good Exercise DVD and pack to give you advice and tips on post-treatment fitness, which you can order online or by calling 0808 808 0000.

Getting started
Many patients recovering from cancer are keen to get back to their previous level of fitness as soon as possible, but your body has been through a lot and so it is important not to push yourself too hard. Start slowly by adding a little physical activity to your daily routine. That could mean taking stairs instead of a lift, walking round the block, or even stretching or resistance exercises from the comfort of a chair. It is likely that what might seem a very small amount of activity will take it out of you, so if you feel tired or weak, don't push it. Remember, your body also needs plenty of rest, so finding the right balance is a must.

If you don't feel like exercise one day, don't feel guilty. Either do a little less than the previous day, or wait until the next day. As your fitness level improves and your treatment side effects subside, you will feel more like exercising and can begin to increase the duration or intensity. Walking or swimming are great options as you do more exercise, as both are low impact and you can do as much or as little as you feel comfortable with, building up slowly day by day.

Some find that keeping an activity diary, where you record how much you have done and how you felt, can really help with motivation and knowing whether you're doing too much. Setting achievable goals, no matter how small, is also an excellent way to gradually increase your level of exercise and see the progress you have made. For those no longer at an increased risk of infection, joining a walking, cycling or swimming group can help to boost your mood and fitness levels further by adding a social element.

Take care
While exercise will ultimately help you to feel better after chemotherapy, it is important to stay safe after such a treatment. If you feel unusually tired or experience muscle weakness, leg pains or cramps, you should seek advice from your doctor. Nausea or vomiting during exercise, chest pain, dizziness, difficulty breathing, numbness of the hands or feet, or an irregular pulse are also signs that you may be doing too much too soon. If you develop any of the above symptoms, stop or reduce your exercise and speak to your specialist or GP.

Did exercise help you to recover from chemotherapy? What advice would you give to others? Leave your comments below...
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