We hear more and more from the growing body of scientific evidence demonstrating the importance of physical activity for cancer prevention, cancer survivorship, and optimal quality of life before, during, and after cancer treatment. Physical activity contributes to our health by helping to control our weight, maintaining healthy bones and muscles, and promoting our psychological well-being. Despite proven health benefits and broad awareness of the benefits of physical activity, the results of recent studies suggest that more than 50% of Americans do not engage in enough regular physical activity.
Cancer patients and survivors often face obstacles beyond the average person’s lack of motivation to exercise that often accounts for the general population’s preference to opt out of physical activities. Treatment-induced side effects such as arthritis, osteoporosis, heart problems, thyroid problems, urinary problems, lymphedema, neuropathy, pain, and fatigue can present significant challenges to cancer patients and survivors wishing to embrace physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle. While the obstacles to incorporating physical activity into our lives during and after cancer treatment can be many, re- search shows that physical activity can help to alleviate many of the side effects of cancer treatment. The most proven benefits of exercise are reducing fatigue and assisting with energy balance. Thus, physical activity can open the door to an increasingly active lifestyle by increasing our energy, and, along with it, our motivation.
Cancer shows us that, while we can have a lot in common, we are all unique. How we get back onto a path of health and well-being and what that path looks like following cancer will vary from person to person. According to Suzanne Brue, MS, researcher and author of The 8 Colors of Fitness, we all have our own fitness personality, and it can be especially difficult to maintain an exercise regimen if we choose physical activities that are less than compatible with our personalities and interests. Fortunately, there are courses to help individuals identify their fitness personalities so they can build and maintain a physically active lifestyle that suits them. New research, programs, and organizations are emerging all the time to help cancer survivors overcome obstacles and begin and maintain physically active lifestyles.
Getaways to Get Started
A wonderful way survivors can get a jump-start on the thrills and adventures that can come of a physically active life is through organized getaways. Numerous organizations plan a variety of adventures, retreats, camps, and cruises for cancer survivors. All of them are opportunities to reclaim and embrace life in a new and healthy way, while connecting with other survivors striving to do the same.
First Descents offers young adult cancer fighters and survivors a free outdoor adventure experience designed to empower them to climb, paddle, and surf beyond their diagnosis. River Discovery offers cancer survivors of any age the opportunity to enjoy rafting, hiking, swimming, and kayaking down the Idaho River. Epic Experience offers paddleboarding in the summer and snowshoeing and snow cave building in the winter. The goal of these adventure programs is to introduce survivors to experiences that are both physically and emotionally healing.
High adventure is not for everyone. For those looking for a more laid-back and relaxed getaway, there are camps offered by Faces of Courage, the Pink Lemonade Project, or Harmony Hill, to name just a few. Breast Cancer Wellness Magazine organizes a “Thrivers Cruise” for breast cancer survivors looking to cruise to enticing destinations with other survivors. All of these programs include opportunities to learn about ways to develop and maintain a more physically active lifestyle. Thanks to the founders of these programs and supporters of their missions, most of these getaways are offered at no or low cost to cancer survivors.
Getting Active at the Gym
Thanks to organizations such as LIVESTRONG, cancer survivors need only travel as far as their local YMCA to get the jump-start they are looking for to help them become more physically active.
LIVESTRONG has partnered with the YMCA to offer a 12-week, small-group program designed for adult cancer survivors. The program emphasizes health rather than disease. It is designed to help cancer survivors feel physically and emotionally strong enough to move on to their Oncology nurses can play an important role in supporting cancer patients and survivors in their efforts to rebuild a physically active lifestyle.
The YMCA fitness instructors are trained in the elements of cancer, postrehab exercise, and supportive cancer care. They work with each participant to fit the program to his or her individual needs. The pro- gram aims to assist participants in developing their own physical fitness plan to continue to practice a healthy lifestyle after the program ends.
Breast Cancer Survivors Dragon Boating
In 1996, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, Dr Don McKenzie, a sports medicine professor and an exercise physiologist, conducted an experiment. Dr McKenzie questioned the prevailing idea at that time that women treated for breast cancer should avoid rigorous upper-body exercise for fear of developing lymphedema. He decided to put the question to the test, and the seeds of the Pink Dragon Boat Racing movement were sown.
To determine the impact of exercise on breast cancer survivors, Dr McKenzie developed a paddling program in which he had 24 breast cancer volunteers paddle daily for 3 months. After 3 months of strenuous upper-body exercise in the company of other survivors, the women felt not just healthier, but happier. They loved exercising with the support of their fellow paddlers and breast cancer survivors. Over the years, the movement has spread across Canada and to numerous other countries.
I was introduced to this amazing team sport almost 2 years ago, when the IBCPC (International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission) was making plans to hold its international event in my hometown of Sarasota, Florida. Before I knew it, I was captain and founder of Survivors In Sync, a dragon boat paddling team that competed in its most recent event in October 2014. There are hardly words to describe the sense of shared accomplishment that developed and was experienced by all during those 3 days of racing and fellowship with survivors and athletes from around the world.
Sport for Women Cancer Survivors
In dragon boat racing, I observed how survivors can realize a strength that comes from working with others toward shared goals of attaining a certain level of physical ability, but dragon boating and competitive paddling are not for everyone. Fortunately, there are many other options for those looking to combine physical activity with social opportunities designed around the shared experience of cancer survivorship and optimal health. For example, Team Survivor is a nonprofit organization with affiliates across the country that promotes all kinds of sport, group exercise, and support programs for women survivors of any type of cancer. Some program offerings at present include walking, running, swimming, tennis, yoga, cycling, golf, Pilates, triathlon training, and dragon boat racing. Team Survivor programs vary from city to city, but all focus on providing fun, fitness, health education, and peer support.
Just as there is no “one size fits all” prescription for getting physically active, our physical fitness interests and goals can change over time as we progress from cancer patient to cancer survivor and beyond. What is most important is that we not give up on finding those physical activities that best suit our personalities, interests, and physical abilities at any given time. Oncology nurses can play an important role in supporting cancer patients and survivors in their efforts to rebuild a physically active lifestyle, by both educating them about the benefits of physical activity and pointing them to some of the many options that exist to support them in their journeys back to good health.