Breast Cancer and the benefits of exercise to support recovery


When you think of breast cancer or cancer in general, I wonder if your thoughts move towards whether or not you should be exercising?  Probably not.  Exercise is not always at the forefront of our mind, especially when we have received news that undoubtedly will take time to process.


However, I urge you to see exercise as a necessity; something on a par with the importance of good nutrition and good sleep.  Our body undergoes unexpected stresses and strains during treatment and we need to remember to nourish it in several different ways.  


Breast cancer continues to be the most common cancer in women.  In the UK, 1 in 7 women will at some point in their lives get breast cancer, but frightening as that might sound, remember that the numbers of breast cancer survivors are increasing each year, with 90% surviving to 5 years and 50% surviving to 10 years and beyond.


In this blog I’ll share with you why it’s beneficial to continue to exercise during treatment and move onto a comprehensive rehabilitation programme.


A diagnosis of breast cancer is an overwhelming experience and you may not have really processed the news before your treatment or surgery gets underway, let alone get to grips with the likely short, medium and long term effects of breast cancer treatment.  


Our immediate thoughts naturally go directly to the area of the body which is affected by the cancer, but it’s important to treat the body as a whole.  Side effects can include pain in areas other than the affected site, especially if skin or muscle grafts are needed.  Pelvic health can be affected due to radiotherapy and chemotherapy, and with breast cancer, your shoulder mobility and strength can be compromised too.  


The NHS recommends that we undertake 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.  Fatigue is a very common side effect of cancer and its treatment, so having a strong body before you go into surgery or commence treatment will improve the speed of your recovery and rehabilitation.


Some of us are better at achieving exercise goals than others, so even if you haven’t been committed to an exercise programme before you begin treatment, it really would be beneficial to do some exercise (starting gently and building up gradually) during your treatment, as this will help to keep both your body and mind strong.  This can also aid in preventing cancer recurrence too.  


Why is this important?  How can Pilates help?


Breast cancer and its treatment almost inevitably will give rise to fear and anxiety, changes in sleep patterns and general weakness, as well as pain and perhaps reduced bone density, pelvic floor dysfunction, swelling and neurological changes.


Research has shown  that physical exercise reduces the adverse effects of cancer treatment and therefore helps improve quality of life.   We are always great advocates of outdoor exercise, a gentle walk or something more strenuous when you’re up to it.  However, as a non-impact body strengthening form of exercise, Pilates can also be really beneficial during and after treatment.


Regular exercise can help to reduce the incidences of death by up to 40%.  For each individual, different exercises will be more beneficial both during treatment and in aiding post treatment rehabilitation.  Each person will have individual and unique goals and ways in which they cope both physically and mentally during this journey.  For some, the idea of exercising while undergoing treatment may be quite frightening, so working closely with a Pilates teacher, who understands the impact of surgery and other treatment therapies on your physical and emotional wellbeing, will help give you the confidence to continue to move and start to heal your body and your mind from the inside out.


At its simplest, Pilates is wonderful in maintaining mobilisation, preventing stiffness from creeping in and strengthening the body’s immune system, but it can offer many more physical benefits – whether you’re starting your Pilates journey during your treatment or have been practising for years!


During treatment and after surgery, muscles and nerves around your shoulder are affected, so it would be really beneficial to think about shoulder strengthening and mobilising –  using repetitive exercises and movement patterns will increase strength, flexibility and mobility; and as breast cancer treatments focus a lot around the lymph nodes of your armpit, Pilates can help to encourage lymphatic drainage.


As a whole-body exercise programme, Pilates encourages core connection and strength, improves postural awareness and helps you look at your overall body alignment.  This is important in helping to balance out the muscles in your body, particularly if one side of your body has become more affected than the other.


Pilates can also help reduce the toxic side effects of cancer treatment and support therapeutic recovery, by increasing the efficiency of radiotherapy and improving your blood flow which can help counter the effects of chemotherapy drugs.


Crucially, alongside all the physiological benefits, Pilates is also great for your mind – the breathing techniques that we learn in Pilates can help to stop your mind from racing.  Our breathing technique connects our breath to our body movement, bringing calm to our nervous systems.   It can also be a real mood booster and help with your self-esteem, confidence and overall sense of well-being.  


Even when you don’t feel like going out to a Pilates class, you can easily access a class online and importantly, work at your own pace, doing what your body is able to do during that session.  Don’t be despondent if you’re not as strong one week as you were the previous week (or day) – whether you’re living with cancer, or an Olympic athlete, your body will respond differently every day – the important thing is that you’re moving and giving yourself the best chance of improvement.   Your teacher will also be able to help you with movements to practise at home, for those days when you feel strong and the days when you really don’t feel like moving at all.


Living with cancer, particularly when you’re preparing for surgery or undergoing treatment can be such a frightening time, but when the time is right for you, we are here to help.  If you’d like to speak in confidence with me, Gemma, or one of our other teachers about how we might be able to help, please do get in touch.


If you are living with cancer and would be willing to share your journey with our community, we would love to hear from you and help you share your story in your way.