From the AICR Newsletter #117, Fall 2012

Moving More to Survive Breast Cancer

Older black woman doing chest flexability exercisesParticipating in physical activity during and after breast cancer treatment yields great benefits but can be a challenge. Here is advice from physical activity coach, Mary Kennedy, MS, who is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine.

The evidence is clear – physical activity for survivors offers tremendous potential to aid the recovery process. Yet despite these findings, studies report that only about 30 percent of women exercise regularly during or after breast cancer treatment. And a majority of survivors seem to be less physically active after their diagnosis than they were before.

Why are these numbers so low? Research points to a number of possible barriers.

Emotional challenges. A breast cancer diagnosis is alarming and emotional. Increased anxiety, depression and fatigue are common side effects that women deal with both during and after treatment. But these symptoms can be relieved with physical activity.

Physical challenges. Breast cancer treatments often wreak havoc on a woman’s body. Depending on the type of therapy, women face several post-treatment physical limitations:

  • decreased range of motion
  • increased fatigue
  • lymphedema (swelling)
  • weight gain

Lack of clear guidance. Physical activity is often not included as part of a regular cancer treatment plan. Without clear instructions from their oncologist, patients may be confused about whether physical activity is beneficial or even safe during or following treatment. It's worth taking the initiative to ask about physical activity because it is such an important factor in recovery.

How to Get Started with Activity

Take these steps to overcome barriers for physical activity:

Make it a priority. Strong evidence suggests that exercise is a safe and extremely effective way to help you decrease the side effects of diagnosis and treatment, decrease your risk of recurrence and increase your overall rate of survival. Most importantly, exercise can help you to feel stronger and happier on a regular basis.

Get expert guidance. Once your oncologist has given you the green light, reach out to a professional trained to work with cancer survivors. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) certifies fitness professionals who create exercise programs for people whose needs are affected by cancer treatments (such as tightened skin around radiation sites, decreased range of motion, lymphedema and medication side-effects). To find an expert, visit and type "profinder" in the search field, or check with your local hospital or cancer center to find a certified cancer exercise trainer.

Start slowly and be patient. It will take time and you may experience setbacks, but consider every step a success. Start gradually and work toward your goals.

Try This: Butterfly Stretch

This exercise, which stretches the chest muscles, is also good for your posture (see photo above).

  1. You can do this stretch while standing or sitting in a sturdy, armless chair.
  2. Keep your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart.
  3. Hold arms to your sides at shoulder height, with palms facing outward.
  4. Slowly move your arms back, while squeezing your shoulder blades together. Stop when you feel a stretch or slight discomfort.
  5. Hold the position for 10-30 seconds.
  6. Repeat at least 3-5 times.

The photo and exercise on this page are reprinted with permission from the National Institute on Aging Go4Life® program. Go4Life® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Participation by AICR does not imply endorsement by HHS/NIH/NIA.


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