The best advice for moving forward after a breast cancer diagnosis is simple, yet powerful advice: Start moving.
You may feel like you’ve lost control of your body. It’s a helpless and scary feeling. But you can take back some control by embracing the healthy lifestyle you’ve always meant to live — and stepping up your exercise routine if you are someone who already exercises regularly.
Eating well is important, but exercise is the real key to living well after a breast cancer diagnosis, says Debra Pratt, MD, Medical Director of the Breast Health Center at Cleveland Clinic’s Fairview Hospital.
Exercise not only helps lessen the side effects of treatment, but it may also help prevent cancer recurrence.
Fill your plate with goodness
Eating a healthy diet is important for everyone including people who have had breast cancer. What’s important to know, however, is that it’s not a magic bullet.
“There is no specific diet that will help you get cured from breast cancer. A healthy diet is important to help tolerate treatment and be healthy,” Dr. Pratt says.
Dr. Pratt recommends following the My Plate recommendations by filling your plate first with at least 50 percent vegetables and fruits — and eating those first to help fill you up with healthy foods.
Battle the side effects with exercise
Women who get regular exercise are one-third less likely to die from breast cancer, and they reduce the risk of recurrence by almost 25 percent. But there are also a host of other reasons to get moving.
Exercise will help you:
- Build bones – Many of the medications you receive as part of breast cancer treatment can affect bone mineral density. Exercise and weight lifting can help you maintain healthy bones.
- Improve well-being – Depression and anxiety are both issues that you may struggle with after a breast cancer diagnosis. Studies that compared moderate and intense exercise with antidepressants found that they worked equally well at improving depression.
- Increase immunity – People who exercise tend to have a better immune system, something that is extremely important when you’re fighting cancer.
- Lose weight – Survival rates of people with breast cancer who are overweight are poorer than for people with a healthy weight.
- Reduce swelling – One potential complication after breast cancer treatment is lymphedema — a buildup of fluid that causes swelling in the upper body. Exercise is shown to reduce this condition.
How much exercise and what kind?
Dr. Pratt says resistance training, including weight lifting or yoga, is important. But for breast cancer patients, aerobic exercise is the best focus, she says.
The American Cancer Society recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week.
Where you can start
Dr. Pratt advises that you start exercising as soon as you learn you have cancer. She recommends beginning with daily walks.
During treatment, your activity level will likely be reduced by up to 50 percent, she says, but regular activity is important for lessening fatigue and other side effects. The key here is to rest on bad days and do whatever you can on good ones.
Exercising regularly is easier said than done, but there are a lot of options to help get you moving. To support these goals, consider that many hospitals offer diet and exercise programs for cancer survivors at low or no cost.