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Staying Fit During Breast Cancer Treatment

By MICHAEL LASALANDRA, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Correspondent

Breast cancer treatment can be a challenging experience. Most women undergo not only surgery, but also radiation and/or chemotherapy and, in some cases, hormonal therapy.

The side effects can be difficult to deal with, as they can include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, pain in the extremities, sexual difficulties, lymphedema (swelling of the arm or arms if lymph nodes have been removed) and more.

But experts say some of the side effects can be eased somewhat if the patient is able to take part in some sort of a fitness program during treatment.

There have been studies suggesting people going through cancer treatment -- not just women getting treatment for breast cancer -- have a somewhat easier time if they can maintain a mild exercise routine," says Hester Hill Schnipper, Program Manager for Oncology Social Work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and herself a two-time breast cancer survivor.

"It would be rare to run a marathon, although I've known a few women who have," she says. "The important thing is just to stay as active as is comfortable. That might translate to walking around the neighborhood each day."

Schnipper says she tells women they will likely have to cut back their usual amount of activity during treatment. "If you usually run 30 minutes a day, maybe you might try to walk and run for 15 minutes," she says. "Most people feel better if they move their body."

She notes that exercise likely will make the patient feel better during treatment by reducing fatigue and nausea and noted there are studies that suggest regular moderate exercise once treatment is over could help reduce the chances of a recurrence of the cancer.

This may have to do with weight, as fat cells harbor estrogen and the hormone serves as fuel to some breast cancers.

Marlene DaCosta, exercise physiologist and Fitness Center Manager at the BIDMC Tanger Be Well Center, says she has worked with breast cancer patients during treatment.

She says that patients should talk with their doctor to make certain that it is appropriate to exercise during treatment.

"If a person is already used to exercising, it is good to continue doing so on a regular basis," she says. "For anyone who wasn't exercising before treatment, that conversation with her doctor is even more important."

DaCosta said the routine can be tailored to how the patient is feeling. "Just walking can be beneficial," she says. "The exercise doesn't have to be a structured routine. Walking the dog can serve as an opportunity. The main thing is that the couch should not be your friend. Research shows that patients who do exercise during treatment do feel better.

"Exercise can battle feelings of fatigue," she says. "And it may help deal with stress."

Some people may want to introduce stretching or strength training, which is good for maintaining muscle and keeping bones strong, she notes.

Schnipper notes that eating can be problematic during treatment. Some people don't want to eat at all, while others eat ravenously due to stress. She also noted that some people may find the foods they used to like don't taste good anymore.

While she does not believe that eating certain foods can help in the cancer fight, Schnipper does think that eating protein is important. "Chemotherapy kills healthy cells and cells need protein," she says.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted May 2016

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