Breast Cancer Treatment: Exercising Safely and How to Get Started

I’m not usually one who says things like, “it takes a special person to do so and so,” but breast cancer survivors are special people. I’ve found that working with survivors challenges me and makes me want to go to work every day!

We all know that exercise is good for us. We all know the positive benefits of exercise. Now you just need to get out there and do it. The American Cancer Society states the possible benefits of regular exercise during and after cancer treatment as:

  1. keep or improve your physical abilities
  2. better balance, lower risk of falls and broken bones
  3. keep muscles from wasting due to inactivity
  4. lower risk of heart disease
  5. less risk of osteoporosis (weak bones that are more likely to break)
  6. better blood flow to legs and lower risk of blood clots
  7. less dependence on others to do normal activities of daily living
  8. improved self-esteem
  9. lower risk of anxiety and depression
  10. less nausea
  11. better ability to keep social contacts
  12. fewer symptoms of fatigue
  13. better weight control
  14. improved quality of life

I have worked with over 250 breast cancer survivors and most of them agree that regular exercise can make a real difference. One of my clients, Kathy from New Jersey, did strength training and cardiovascular exercise throughout and following her treatment. She says, “I lifted weights before, during, and after my treatment and as a result, did not have the usual problem of loss of muscle strength.”

Kathy claims that working out helped her get through treatment better than she’d expected. “I worked out during chemo, after my mastectomy, and during radiation. The support I received [at the gym] was very uplifting. There were days when I was feeling down and didn’t feel like doing anything. But I always went to work out because I knew I would feel better afterwards.  And I always did!”

As her trainer, the message I gave her was always the same — listen to your body and do what you can. She plans to continue her exercise program right up until her upcoming reconstructive surgery day.

Starting an exercise program at any time is difficult for a lot of people, but it can often be even harder after breast cancer treatment. You might be asking yourself, “What can I do? Who do I go to for help? What do I need to be wary of?”

Here are some guidelines that I hope you will find helpful:

  1. Talk to your doctor about her/his thoughts on exercise during and after your treatment.
  2. Express to your doctor that exercise is important to you and that you want to make it a part of your life.
  3. Keep in mind that the stronger you are before surgery, the more quickly and thoroughly you can recover from the effects of surgery.
  4. Find a qualified personal trainer in your area to assist you in beginning your program and show you any safety precautions you may need to take (I’ll be posting a future blog explaining ways to find a qualified professional in your area).
  5. Do some research on your own. There are some real risks out there, but I really believe, and my clients are the reason I believe it, that the benefits can outweigh the risks.
  6. Find out what lymphedema is and what to look for. The PAL Trial at the University of Pennsylvania has given us evidence-based research that exercise, specifically strength training, is good for women who have and who are at risk for lymphedema.
  7. Use common sense. You are the only person who really knows how you feel. Don’t overdo it. Your muscles will tell you when you need to slow down and rest.
  8. START!!

Walking is the easiest exercise program around. This is a great way to start getting your body moving and allow you some time to experience the good feelings associated with exercise.

If you have a little time before your surgery, feel free to do any exercises that you were doing before diagnosis while keeping an eye on how you’re feeling during and after exercise. For instance, if you like to strength train, then keep doing it.

If you have surgery planned for right away, then it is strongly suggested that you talk with a physical therapist and a qualified personal trainer about safely getting back into exercise after surgery. You should be able to do any exercises that you were doing before treatment at a moderate level. Your goal is to avoid inactivity!

There are always so many precautions about everything and I certainly want you to pay homage to precautions regarding your exercise program after cancer treatment. But give it a try! And remember — it’s good for you and you may even like it.

This article was originally published at on July 13, 2011. Please send comments about this blog or previous posts to

Cathy Bryan, Certified Cancer and Exercise Trainer (CET)

Cathy has been a personal fitness trainer since 1993 and is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). As research coordinator for the Physical Activity and Lymphedema trial (PAL) at University of Pennsylvania, Cathy lead the data collection effort, personal-trained breast cancer survivors, and taught staff how to train survivors. Cathy also worked on the Wiser Sister study, which is looking at the effects of aerobic exercise on estrogen levels in women at high risk for developing breast cancer. She has taught functional strength training to cancer survivors at the Wellness Community of Philadelphia and created individual programs for recently diagnosed cancer patients to improve their fitness and well-being. Cathy is a regular blogger at Her work includes training before, during, and after treatment. Cathy now runs PALS for Life, an organization that offers safe strength training to breast cancer survivors based on the PAL research findings. You can also connect with PALS for Life on Facebook.