As the winter weather turns from cold and blustery to the warmer days of Spring, it is the perfect time to start an exercise regimen. Sadly, many cancer patients find themselves fighting extreme fatigue, which can be a hindrance to implementing a proper exercise program. Fatigue is the most common physical symptom affecting people with cancer. It can occur in cancer patients for a number of reasons, including anemia, cancer treatments, the cancer itself, inactivity, medications, nutritional deficiencies and/or depression.
Fatigue occurs in an individual with cancer when a tumor spreads to the bone marrow and then results in anemia. Fatigue can often be an early symptom of some forms of cancer. It is important to differentiate this type of fatigue from the “tiredness” that results from not getting enough sleep. Cancer-related fatigue is described as “crushing,” and it is not relieved by rest.
In addition, the actual cancer treatments including chemotherapy and radiation are also known to cause profound fatigue. Cancer-killing drugs, unfortunately, attack healthy cells along with the malignant ones.
Karen Mustian of the University of Rochester Medical Center explored as many studies as possible, looking at the various ways to fight cancer-related fatigue and improve energy in cancer patients. Her team explored a plethora of studies covering over 11,000 cancer survivors, including men and women of all ages. As reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Oncology, it turns out that moderate exercise was the clear winner to improve a patient’s energy level, over medications and caffeine.
Mustian’s team further found that stimulant drugs like Modafinil, used for narcolepsy, or Ritalin, used for ADHD, should be the last option for cancer patients with fatigue. Studies show these drugs are of little benefit and that the impact of moderate exercise on fatigue reduction is far superior.
If you have recently been diagnosed with cancer or are currently undergoing treatment, it is important to take care of yourself. The studies explored by Mustian and her team indicate that the best way to fight cancer-related fatigue is to maintain a certain level of physical activity. This does not mean that you should immediately plan on running a marathon, but you should start incorporating moderate physical activity into your life as soon as possible.
As always, it is important for you to first discuss with your doctor the type of exercise you want to do to make sure it is safe for your body and not too strenuous.
The American Cancer Society lists the following benefits of exercise for cancer patients:
- Keep or improve your physical abilities (how well you can use your body to do things)
- Improve balance, lower risk of falls and broken bones
- Keep muscles from wasting due to inactivity
- Lower the risk of heart disease
- Lessen the risk of osteoporosis (weak bones that are more likely to break)
- Improve blood flow to your legs and lower the risk of blood clots
- Make you less dependent on others for help with normal activities of daily living
- Improve your self-esteem
- Lower the risk of being anxious and depressed
- Lessen nausea
- Improve your ability to keep social contacts
- Lessen symptoms of tiredness (fatigue)
- Help you control your weight
- Improve your quality of life
Remember to shoot for 30 minutes of moderate activity at least five days per week. Be careful not to overdo it or you can make it more difficult to exercise the following day. If you don’t have the energy to exercise a full half hour, break it up; try three 10-minute walks during the day. Remember to make exercise enjoyable, bring a buddy with you or listen to music you like on headphones.
Warm your body up with gentle stretches, and consider yoga and tai chi as part of your exercise. Look in your local area for programs designed for cancer patients, as health clubs or hospitals may offer exercise classes designed to specifically address the physical challenges of living with cancer. And finally, do not exercise if you are not feeling well or if you are running a fever.