April 27, 2016

Exercise Empowers Breast Cancer Survivors

Be Healthy

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), there currently are more than 3.1 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. 

Following breast cancer treatment, some women may experience common side effects such as stiffness or joint pain, which occur after taking aromatase inhibitors for hormonal therapy. 

Others may suffer from lymphedema (swelling of the limbs), muscle problems or a negative body image. 

The surest, and often safest, way to overcome these issues is exercise, experts say. 

“Exercise is essential for women recovering from breast surgery,” says Marcie Nowack, an exercise physiologist who leads the ABC: After Breast Cancer Exercise Program at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children. 

“Regular exercise influences the way our bodies break down estrogens to produce more of the ‘good’ metabolites that reduce breast cancer risk,” she explains. “Studies also show physical activity reduces a woman’s risk of breast cancer, no matter what kind of exercise you do, how old you are or how much you weigh.” 

Formerly named “Building Strength and Courage: Exercise for Breast Cancer Survivors,” this five-week exercise program is designed by breast cancer survivors and medical experts to help patients lead an active life after breast cancer surgery. 

Exercises include those that patients can do one day post-op and progress to a more-rigorous regimen of stretching and weight training. 

“There are exercises that can be started the first day after surgery that are designed to help regain full range of motion of the shoulder,” Nowack says. “Studies now show women have a reduced risk of lymphedema when they perform aerobic exercise and a slow, progressive strength training program after surgery. 

“Another benefit of the ABC class is that these women all have a common bond,” she adds. “They share their experiences and are very encouraging to each other. It is almost like a support group, too!” 

A recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania looked at how a similar community-based group exercise program helped women affected by breast cancer

Researchers found that after a year of following the program, the 67 participants had improvements in symptoms, body image and muscular strength. 

These results support another large-scale review in which researchers analyzed 85 studies that included more than 164,000 women worldwide and found that breast cancer patient survival may be associated with: 

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Engaging in physical activity
  • Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans
  • Lowering fat intake, particularly saturated fat 

Nowack notes that all of these findings are in line with the AICR’s recommendations that cancer survivors eat a plant-based diet, stay at a healthy weight and exercise regularly. 

“Excess body fat increases blood levels of insulin and related hormones that can encourage the growth of cancer,” she states. “Diets high in a variety of plant foods protect against cancer, and exercise burns calories and helps to control weight. 

“Exercise is an empowering activity. It is an option that you have full control over, and it produces positive effects and benefits right away,” Nowack says. “Exercise increases your energy level, enhances your physical and mental condition and improves your quality of life.”