CANCER STORY: Success & Hard Truth

Should Cancer Patient Work Out?

by Khadijah Shaari

Exercise should be a regular part of a comprehensive care plan for all cancer patients regardless of age and physical ability. Anyone can exercise – all you have to do is to tailor your work out to your own ability and progress slowly step-by-step. Cancer patients can and should be encouraged to exercise the day they are diagnosed (for that matter, even before they get cancer!). The advice to get more rest is a myth, and is not the best advice for cancer patients.

In the past, physicians advised patients with chronic diseases to rest and avoid physical activities. However, in the last decade, scientific evidence has drastically changed our ideas about exercise for patients with chronic diseases. It is a well established fact that excessive rest and lack of physical activity may result in severe deconditioning and thus reduce the functional status and quality of life of the chronically ill. Recent studies have shown that physical activity may improve the quality of life and mood and the physical performance of cancer patients during and after treatment.

Exercise has many benefits for cancer patients. It helps them tolerate cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy better and it also helps them feel better physically and emotionally. Patients who have completed chemotherapy are often faced with many long-term side effects of treatment, and exercise can help manage many problems such as osteoporosis, weight gain, and increased risks of heart disease.

The most important aspect of cancer treatment for patients is to learn to mange their side-effects. Scientific research has proven that exercise is the key to preventing profound fatigue and weakness that patients experience during cancer treatment. Exercise keeps the body’s muscles strong, flexible and the cardiovascular system fit and healthy. Exercise will increase one’s energy, and even help one to be mentally sharper.

Exercise doesn’t have to be unpleasant, make you sweaty or make your heart race. One of the biggest challenges is to start slowly and progress even more slowly. For people who have never exercised before, think about what you can do now. Can you walk around the block, run, jog or swim? Start off exercising with what you can do easily.

All forms of regular, moderate exercise, including walking, yoga, riding a stationary bicycle, dancing, or doing some form of martial art, promote the cleansing of your internal system. Exercise moves lymph, which collects waste from your cells and tissue fluids, and helps to eliminate them from your body. It also eliminates toxins from cells and tissues through sweating and deep breathing as well.

In the process, exercise reduces and in some cases eliminates many of the poisons that your illness needs to survive.


Many scientific studies have shown that people who exercise regularly have a much lower incidence of cancer than people who don’t exercise much. Some of the best forms of exercise available include aerobic exercise like brisk walking, swimming, jogging, cycling and joint mobility exercises such as stretching, yoga, breathing routines, tai chi, qigong (see separate article), etc. How does exercise benefit our body in fighting cancer?


- Boosts the immune system by increasing the amounts of lymphocytes, interleukin, neutrophils, and other immune substances circulating in the body.

- Moves waste products through the intestines more quickly, thereby reducing the time that the intestinal walls are exposed to carcinogens.

- Decreases resting heart rate, strengthens the heart and lowers blood pressure.

- Increases oxygenation throughout the body

- Increases the absorption of nutrients into the cells

- Reduces fatigue and improves endurance and stamina

- Provides lean body mass while burning fats

- Increases muscle strength, bone, ligament and tendon strength as well

- Raises the level of high density lipoproteins, the good cholesterol that sweeps excess cholesterol off the walls of the arteries

- Lowers the levels of biologically available sex hormones, which could lead to decreased risk of hormone-related cancers, including cancers of the breast, endometrium, ovaries, prostate and testes. Physical activity my also increase the amount of substances that bind to these available sex hormones and keep them from adversely influencing the tissues at potential cancer sites

Regular exercise has a powerful effect on the mind by enhancing the release of pain relieving and mood-elevating substances in the brain called endorphins, which are commonly referred to as the “happy drugs”. However, please remember that too much exercise or too vigorous exercises can be just as dangerous for our health as with too little exercise. Whichever exercise you do decide to incorporate into your healing routine, always start slowly, listen to your body signals and gently increase the frequency and intensity. Remember moderation and balance is preferred.


Over 150 studies have looked at physical inactivity or sedentary behavior as a risk factor for cancer. Although most attention has been focused on the efficacy of physical activity in cancer prevention, a number of recent reviews have evaluated the literature on physical activity in cancer patients during and after treatment. The evidence consistently suggested benefits ranging from improved physical functioning, physical performance and quality of life, reduces fatigue and depression, and improved muscular fitness. In some studies, weight gain was also minimized, which in turn may help prevent disease recurrence.

Most of the scientific studies have been carried out by Dr. Kerry Courneya, Ph D,  professor of physical education at the University of Alberta, Canada; Dr. Christine Friedenreich, research scientist with the Alberta Cancer Board; Dr. Constance Visovsky, Asst. Prof. at Case Western University, Ohio and Dr. Anna Schwartz, scientist at OSHU School of Nursing.

The American Institute of Cancer Research in July, 2005 lists 250 studies by various individuals on the subject of Physical Activity and Cancer Risks(



1)   Physical Activity and Cancer Risk by American Institute for Cancer Research (July 29, 2005. Visit

2)   Exercise and Cancer Recovery: a special compilation of articles/studies on the subject.

3)   Exercise & Cancer Recovery: a book by Dr. Carole M. Schneider, Ph. D.

4)   The Force Program: the proven way to fight cancer through physical activity and exercise by Dr. Jeff Berman and Fran Fleegler.

5)   Rehabilitation Exercises by Dr. Ernest Rosenbaum, M.D.  - in the book “ Cancer Supportive Care.

6)   The Healing Power of Movement by Lisa Hoffman (How to benefit from physical activity during your cancer treatment).

7)   Cancer Fitness: Exercise Programs for Patents and Survivors by Dr. Anna Schwartz and Lance Armstrong.

8)   Thriving After Breast Cancer by Sherry Lebed Davis (Essential Healing Exercises for Body and Mind).

9)   Essential Exercises For Breast Cancer Survivors by Amy Halverstadt.

10)  Exercise Therapy and The Cancer Patient by Howard F. Stidwell.

11)  Healthy Eating For Life To Prevent & Treat Cancer by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (Read chapter 9: Fitness, Friendship and Freedom from Stress).

12)  Breast Fitness by Dr. Anne McTieruan, MD, Ph.D. (An Optimal Exercise and Health Plan for Breast Cancer:  Chapters 5, 6, 9 and 10. 14 and 15).