Exercise and chemotherapy (Guest post)


Before I started adjuvant (post-surgery) chemotherapy for breast cancer, I had this fantasy that I was going to be the fittest, healthiest chemo patient the world had ever seen. In fact, early in my cancer journey, after I had a pre-mastectomy boudoir photo shoot, I decided that once I got my breasts cut off I was going to quickly achieve the body I’d always wanted – strong, muscular and athletic.

Well, I probably don’t need to tell you that real life intervened. I do love my post-mastectomy body, but the first (pre-chemo) months after my surgery were filled with me working like a demon at my paid job in order to get as much work done as possible before chemo might leave me too sick to work, and that didn’t leave me with much time for working out.

I did get to aikido five days per week before my chemo started, but had to give it up once the chemotherapy drugs made me vulnerable to infection. It’s just too risky for me to be grappling with several people each class, in a busy community centre.

Besides, I was still working full-time for the first six weeks of my chemotherapy, putting in extra hours to tie up some projects before I started my current sick leave.

The reality is that chemotherapy has temporarily changed my life. I don’t know why I expected it wouldn’t. But anyhow, here I am at nearly the half-way mark, and I’m wondering what happened to all my best-laid plans.

The good news is that, now that I’m on sick leave from my job, I have more time to look after myself. And I have a new fitness goal: look after my body first. Seems like a good plan for someone who’s had cancer. My body would have died quickly – more quickly than I might like, anyhow – if I hadn’t received treatment. Why not invest some time and energy into keeping it alive and well as possible?

Putting my body first means making sure that I’m getting enough rest, and eating food that’s nourishing. (After a couple of months of gobbling down comfort food and junk food – especially over the holidays – I’m taking the time to prepare satisfying, home-cooked whole foods from scratch.)

Putting my body first means getting some kind of exercise every morning before sitting down with a book or a movie, or before doing something creative like drawing, sewing or writing.

Putting my body first means not overdoing it, either. Now is not the time to get in the best shape of my life. But I can do little things that make a big difference. I walk up and down the stairs in my condo building (all 14 storeys) once each day. It takes me about 5 1/2 minutes. If I feel well enough, I can even do micro “sprints” – walking up a flight or two as fast as possible.

I do this seven-minute high intensity workout every day. Again, depending on how well I feel, I can adjust the intensity. But it’s only seven minutes, so it’s not too taxing.

I start each day with 20 minutes of gentle qigong exercises that warm me up and get my blood flowing. I often do a few yoga poses, too.

I have a bunch of physiotherapy exercises from injuries in the past year. I rotate through those exercises as I feel able to. (The ones for my knees and ankle will prepare me to get back on the aikido mat when my chemo is over.)

I take short dance breaks throughout the day; I put on some of my favorite music and bop around my living room.

I also have some basic movements from aikido that I can practise, and that will help me get up to speed quickly when I get back on the aikido mat.

(Walking is also a great exercise during chemo, and you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned it. I live in Canada, and it’s cold and yucky outside right now. Walking in the dead of winter? Nope. Not interested. I do walk to all my chemo treatments and cancer-related appointments, because I live close to the hospital and parking is outrageously expensive, but that’s it.)

I’m just about to start a new chemo drug that is especially hard on the body’s immune system. I’ve read recently that exercise can boost the immune system by increasing white blood cell production. Doing as much light exercise as possible will help me stay healthy when I’m immunosuppressed.

I’ve also read that regular, moderate exercise can help combat the fatigue that comes from chemotherapy, and chemo patients should make a point of exercising in order to help improve fatigue. This makes me feel good about taking the time to do some moderate exercise. So far I haven’t experienced much fatigue, and I want to keep it that way.


You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

2 thoughts on “Exercise and chemotherapy (Guest post)

  1. Make sure your exercise is not too heavy. chemotherapy destroys your natural immune system. So you’re more suspectible to colds, germs, etc.

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