Cancer and exercise

by Sue_maggies

Having cancer can feel all time consuming. In the midst of all the treatments, appointments, and side effects, finding time for exercise too can feel daunting. Your energy levels may be low too, and you may worry what exercise you can do, without causing stress or strain.

Benefits of exercise

If you’re not able to keep active (no matter how reduced that may be), your muscles tend to become weaker, and you may have balance and mobility problems. Physical activity also keeps bowels working well, lifts your mood, lessens nausea and can help combat fatigue.

The benefits of keeping active are clear.  Cancer Research UK’s website page entitled ‘Physical activity and cancer: stats and evidence’ focuses on seven key areas where evidence has shown that being active is beneficial in helping prevent cancer.

  • Being inactive can increase the risk of cancer
  • Physical activity reduces the risk of bowel cancer
  • Physical activity reduces the risk of breast cancer
  • Physical activity reduces the risk of womb cancer
  • Physical activity may also reduce the risk of other cancers
  • The Department of Health recommends people meet their physical activity guidelines
  • Sedentary behaviour may increase the risk of some types of cancer.

Research also shows that exercise can go some way to prevent the risk of recurrence. I've been reading the National cancer Institute's factsheet on 'physical activity and cancer'. The authors state that 'Research indicates that physical activity may have beneficial effects for several aspects of cancer survivorship--specifically, weight gain, quality of life, cancer recurrence or progression, and prognosis (likelihood of survival)'.

Suggestions for keeping physically active

It doesn’t seem that you have to go mad on the exercise either. Guidelines suggest at least 2.5 hours of moderately intense exercise a week - but if you’re having treatment, you may find even that sounds daunting. Short spells, building up slowly are a bit kinder to you if you exhausted from chemo and/or radiotherapy. Obviously, if you’ve just had surgery, you’ll be physically limited, so it’s always as well to ask your oncology/hospital team what exercise is permitted.

Finding out what is recommended and what you can manage can be helpful. There is a useful DVD from Macmillan Cancer Support which you can order - Get active - feel good’. There’s also plenty of advice in their ‘Move More’ activity pack.

Sometimes I go for a ‘Walk for Health’ (Walking for Health’s webpage explains it is England’s largest network of health walk schemes, helping all kinds of people to lead a more active lifestyle.) The website discusses ‘Cancer and walking’.  You can look on their web page and find the nearest walks to you. For those of you in Scotland, there is Paths for all (Scotland)…whilst in Wales,  Let’s Walk Cymru is a similar scheme.

Other ideas include walking the dog, gardening, gentle cycling, swimming (just check with your medical team), the gym, where you can explain what’s been going on for you and build up gently.

Many of you reading this, may be generally fit and active, and the cancer treatment has temporarily curbed your activities. This can lead to frustration and fear, as it’s a reminder that currently you’re not at your peak. People have often found being a little weaker has had a demoralising effect, and they miss the endorphin rush achieved by a good physical work out.

If you live near one of our Maggie’s Centres, why not drop in and ask about our exercise for people with cancer. Most centres offer Tai Chi, Yoga and walking programmes for you to try. Having cancer doesn’t mean exercise has to stop, but it may be easier when with others who are aiming for the same goal.

You can also contact us here online, join in our forums and have a read through the blogs and conversation posts,

Warm wishes


(Original blog written by Sue Long, Cancer Support Specialist, October 2013)


Walking for health

Walking and cancer  -  Walking for health website

Get Active, Feel Good   - DVD - Macmillan Cancer Support

Move more activity pack  - Macmillan Cancer Support

8 steps to starting exercise after cancer treatment   -  Cancer.Net

Physical activity and cancer treatment  - American Cancer Society

Exercise and staying active  -  The Christie NHS Foundation Trust