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9 Tips to Get Active With and Beyond Cancer

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From the torturous gym lessons we were subjected to as kids to the semi-regular headlines we see telling us we need to exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, we all know that keeping active can have a positive impact on pretty much every aspect of our health and wellbeing.

But how do you manage this when you’re hit with a cancer diagnosis? 

For most people diagnosed with cancer, we know we should be active. Often though, we don’t know how to get active! Especially if we’ve been sedentary and unsure of what we can and cannot manage. Add to that a grueling treatment regime to combat the disease and suddenly it’s not so easy to pull on the old trainers and head out for a quick 5KM run.

The truth is, for many diagnosed with cancer, being active is the last thing on the agenda when you’re focusing on trying to survive.

How can exercise help?

The benefits of being active are manifold though, especially for those living with or beyond cancer. For example, according to a review published in Canadian Medical Association Journal for those diagnosed with breast cancer, exercise has been proven to reduce the risk of recurrence. For other cancers, exercise can help reduce or manage some treatment side effects such as fatigue, weight gain, osteoporosis and lymphedema, as well as generally improving your long-term health.

It’s also becoming widely recognized by many medical professionals that cancer takes its toll on your mental health (something cancer patients know all too well). In fact, research from the American Cancer Society reveals that one in four people with cancer will experience clinical depression, during or after treatment. While exercise isn’t a cure for these things, it has been proven to help hugely. According to a recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. 

What I’ve learnt about fatigue and critique

Someone asked me recently how I manage to exercise with fatigue and in all honesty, there are times when I really do not feel like I am managing. Exercise has very much become a part of my life after cancer, but it’s one which I have to handle with extreme care because I am still often plagued by post-cancer fatigue. But I have learned, or rather, I am learning that it’s part of the process.

Like so many others who are living with or beyond cancer, I have to be incredibly smart about managing my fatigue. Earlier this year, when I was training for The Royal Parks Half marathon in London and a trek through the Himalayas (both of which I completed), I seriously considered dropping out of the half. Training massively took its toll on me and managing my fatigue around it became as big a challenge as the actual challenges themselves. 

Sometimes I get it wrong and end up staying in bed all day on a Sunday. But if cancer has taught me anything, it’s that I don’t have to do everything, all at once, all the time. A lot of the time, training became about getting the miles under my belt and sleeping 12 hours a night if necessary.

One thing I learned was that the only person judging me for “not running fast enough” or “far enough” or for sleeping “too much” or for not being a “good enough” wife/ friend/ daughter/ sister/ employee was me. 

9 tips for getting active after a cancer diagnosis

There aren’t any general guidelines about exercising after cancer, which can make it seem hard to know where to begin, but several studies have shown that exercise is safe, possible and helpful for many people living with or beyond a diagnosis. 

Cancer Research states: “Generally, doctors advise at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, of moderate paced activity such as walking. This level of activity is helpful for people even during treatment. But everyone's different and exercise needs to be tailored to you, taking into account your overall fitness, diagnosis, and other factors that could affect safety.”

So where do you start? If you feel up to it, it’s fine to start exercising - just speak to your doctor first. How much you do depends on how fit you are generally and how you feel on a day to day basis, so trust yourself and remember to take it easy.

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about how to get fit after a cancer diagnosis. Here are a few things that I’ve learnt:

  • Accept your limits and stick to them as best you can. These will change as you get better, faster and stronger. Every now and again you might trip up against them, but there’s no shame in that. 
  • Be kind to yourself. Things might not be as easy as they once were and that’s OK. Anything is better than nothing. Be patient.
  • Seek help from people who know their stuff. Your medical team will be able to give you some great advice. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, organizations like Trekstock in the UK exist to help rebuild your strength, stamina and fitness, so find a charity or support network that works for you.
  • Plan in rest around doing exercise and having a life. You might not always need it, but it’s good to have a buffer if you end up floored by fatigue.
  • One of the easiest ways to put yourself off exercise is to go too hard too fast. Not only do you risk hurting yourself if you do too much, but if you wear yourself out you’ll be less willing to try again. So build it up slowly.
  • Take it from me. Don’t do too much at once. It’s probably not the best idea to sign up for your first half marathon and an epic trek across Indian mountains in the same month.
  • Exercise is so much easier to psych yourself up for if it’s something you enjoy doing. Some people love running (I am NOT one of those people) while for others it’s a weekly dance class that sets their heart on fire. My favorite form of exercise is swimming - the colder the water the better if you ask me. So that’s what I prioritize when I’m feeling well.
  • If you’re the sort of person who loves a class, be honest with your teachers about any treatment you’ve had and what you think your limits might be. My relationship with my yoga teacher has been one of the biggest and best parts of helping me heal my body.
  • Exercise when your energy levels are high. Fatigue, especially in the early days post treatment, can be very unpredictable. If you feel good, try the slightly longer walk to the shop or go for a swim (unless you’re in active treatment and your team won’t allow it).