In the past, 'surviving and thriving' was not a goal of cancer care. However, growing evidence is leading us to include it as part of the process. We want to enhance not just the quantity, but also the quality of life. Exercise can play a key role, as health professionals discover that activity allows cancer survivors to thrive.
The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) website
A useful search tool on the CCS site can connect you to exercise programs in your area.
• Use the advanced search feature as a part of the community services locator.
• Type in your town or city, and enter 'exercise' under the keyword search.
At the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Dr. Kerry Courneya is a world-leader in exercise and cancer research. See his website for more information, or the opportunity to be involved in a research-based program.
At the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Dr. Kristin Campbell researches exercise for cancer survivors. Visit the website for more information on her research program.
The Thrive Centre at the University of Calgary, and associated programs of the Health and Wellness Lab, offer a supportive exercise environment for those dealing with cancer. Exercise resources include open gym times, group fitness classes, fitness evaluations, and many education programs.
The Thrive Centre is a fitness facility dedicated to cancer survivors and their support persons. It has open gym times six days per week, and no charge for users.
Trained undergraduate and graduate students staff the Thrive Centre. They provide feedback, tips, and support on the exercise journey back to thriving.
Exercise assessments and tailored routines tailored are available. Highly trained certified exercise physiologists, with backgrounds in exercise and cancer research, provide assessments. Survivors can then begin their own programs – either in the Thrive Centre or wherever they choose to work out.
Community programs also help with the transition from simply surviving to thriving. Trained members of the Health and Wellness Lab offer Yoga Thrive and other programs in various facilities.
Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology
Older adult cancer survivors and exercise
information on exercise and lymphedema
National Cancer Institute
Physical activity and cancer
American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition & Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention
Growing evidence clearly shows that exercise helps cancer survivors. Not only does it improve physical function, but also mental, spiritual and social wellbeing both during and after cancer care. After finishing treatment, many people feel confused and distressed. They should feel elated about 'surviving' cancer, but are instead uncertain, questioning the future. Many are coping with negative and lasting side effects from treatment. For all cancer survivors, the number one reported side effect is fatigue. The sooner survivors start exercising, the more likely they are to reduce side effects and begin to thrive. New evidence about colon and breast cancer also shows that exercise may even protect us from the return of cancer and death.
Despite the evidence supporting exercise, many people are less active from the time of diagnosis through to survival. They may find more barriers to exercise. Some are similar to those from life before cancer – such as having no time and motivation, or limited access. Cancer treatment also brings its own specific barriers. These include side effects of treatment, such as fatigue and nausea, and a fear of overdoing it without proper direction. A specific exercise program in a supportive environment, led by specialists who know about cancer and exercise, can remove many barriers.
Exercise guidelines suggest that activity is safe and can benefit you both during and after treatment.
Generally, adults should aim for 150 minutes of moderate activity per week. This is about 30 minutes, five days per week, at a level similar to an energetic walk. Exercise should include:
Monitor your exercise intensity by using a Borg Rated Perceived Exertion Scale (see below). Aim to stay at an intensity of around three to four out of 10. At this level, you should be able to carry on a conversation, but not be able to sing (the "talk-not-sing" test). This test of exertion is a great tool that can be used by anyone, anywhere, no matter what fitness level. It can help manage exercise intensity and avoid overdoing it.
Even if you were active before diagnosis, check with your doctor before starting an exercise program. Your program should be tailored to fit your current health and treatment status. After surgery, and during chemotherapy and radiation, consider the necessary precautions. Your oncologist and health care team can explain where to be careful, and notify exercise specialists of any restrictions.
It may not be possible to achieve a weekly 150 minutes of activity during or shortly after treatment. Still, if you feel well enough, try to get some exercise. Even short bouts of activity (such as 10 minutes at a time) can improve symptoms like fatigue.
No matter where you are in your treatment program, avoid being inactive. Any level of exercise has benefits! Decide what kind of activity you prefer, and find ways to work around any barriers. Look for community exercise resources that are specifically designed for people dealing with cancer. Finally, build support for doing the exercise.
The goal of treatment is no longer just eliminating cancer, but allowing you to return to activities you love. Add physical activity to your routine, so you not only survive, but thrive.