I wrote that because I had been thinking a lot about the role of exercise for cancer survivors. There had been some recent comments (something like “That’s all fine, but you’re an exercise junkie. I hate to exercise.” and “Exercise is no magic pill.”) that had me thinking and re-thinking.
I always struggle with my message. I worry sometimes that my message will be dismissed because of what I do personally. I do love to be in great shape. I enjoy exercising in ways that I find fun. And I do some fairly extreme things: climbing mountains and running ultra marathons. But I always try to be clear that I’m not recommending that for anyone else. No one has to do what I do, and most people shouldn’t.
While I think that my personal struggles and sometime triumphs can be inspiring or useful – my struggles are just the same as anyone’s, except maybe on a larger scale – the bigger issue for me is to encourage others to do whatever is appropriate for them.
Depending on treatments and surgeries, cancer survivors’ energy and abilities may change, and what they do for exercise certainly must change as well. I encourage people to re-think their ideas of exercise. Exercise is not just going to the gym or walking on a treadmill for an hour. For the health benefits, we should think more in terms of overall activity. Go for a short walk, take the stairs, get up off the couch and walk to the window….even a little activity yields benefits.
And the benefits for cancer survivors are huge. There are several cancers for which physical activity has been shown to positively affect outcomes in numerous studies. And for anyone with any type of cancer, physical activity – even a little – can improve quality of life during and after treatment.
No, exercise is not a magic pill. It will not guarantee that cancer will not come back – just as it doesn’t guarantee that it won’t develop in the first place. But it can lower the risk. It will not make all the side-effects of cancer treatment disappear.
Of course, I’m pretty sure there is no magic pill for cancer. No one offered me a guarantee that chemotherapy or radiation would cure me. No one offered me a pill that would erase all of the side-effects. There were plenty of pills that could help certain side-effects, but they didn’t make any symptoms go away, and they didn’t come without their own side-effects.
No, exercise is not a magic pill. But it can help. There is a large and still-growing body of evidence proving that it can improve some symptoms of treatment as well as outcomes. (you can scroll through the Life-Cise News page for some of the studies.) It won’t make any of the symptoms go away, but it might help turn down the volume on them. Physical activity can improve mood, self-esteem, sleep, energy levels, appetite….
And it doesn’t need to be big, tough workouts. A little physical activity is always better than none. We may experience big limitations in what we can do, but we can find some way of doing something.
I always find it interesting when the “It’s not a magic pill; it won’t completely fix anything” argument is used as a way to dismiss the importance of exercise for cancer survivors. That argument isn’t used for the elderly and frail; it’s not used for amputees or people with other disabilities. Exercise will not cure those things, but it can help people feel a little better and lead a more normal or independent life. Would any of us put our parents in a nursing home that never offered a chance for movement, no matter how limited, because it wouldn’t cure them of being old or frail? I’m pretty sure we would all want our loved ones in a place that helped them to move as much as possible if it could help them feel even a little bit better. And would we encourage a recent amputee to just lie around because he or she couldn’t move the same way they always had? I like to think most people would encourage them to do what they could. And we would hope they might be surprised at what they still could accomplish. For some amazing examples of that, watch some of the clips from the recent Paralympics in London.
I stand by my message: physical activity, in whatever form is appropriate, is a good thing for cancer survivors in any and all stages of treatment and beyond. It will not cure anything, but it can help you feel better along the way. I encourage cancer survivors to strive to do whatever activities are appropriate and they enjoy, in whatever amounts they can manage.
And I would hope that anyone else would also encourage survivors to do what they can – even a little bit – to feel as good as possible for as long as possible.
Facing cancer and its treatments is difficult. Staying active can be really tough. Trust me, I know. I know how tough keeping moving can be: I had a spinal injury from being run down by a taxi, I had a 10-hour surgery for my cancer, I went through 5 months of chemo, 6 weeks of radiation, 4 more months of chemo, and years of hormonal treatments. I have been the person who couldn’t walk to the next room. I have been the person who couldn’t lift a plate. I understand just how debilitating it can be. But I also know how beneficial it can be to try to move a little more, in whatever way is possible.