News: Finding strength: Exercise helps survivors, patients
Story by Christine Cabalo
MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII, Hawaii - “Combating Breast Cancer” is a four-part series about how Hawaii’s military community is dealing with the disease. The series discusses how the disease impacts families in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This week’s article examines how regular exercise during and after treatment is assisting breast cancer survivors.
Breast cancer survivors have a better chance to control depression with exercise according to a June study published by the American College of Sports Medicine.
Exercise is a healthy habit recommended to survivors and those going through treatment by Mary Johnson, Makalapa Clinic breast health educator, Naval Health Clinic Hawaii.
“In the past, women were advised to avoid exercise while undergoing treatment for breast cancer,” she said. “Today, doctors are now touting the benefits of exercise.”
The study observed survivors of different types of cancer who exercised regularly. Researchers noted breast cancer survivors were the most likely to reduce depression with 150 minutes or less of aerobic exercise a week. The findings are one of several from the college, reporting benefits for cancer patients who exercise.
In Johnson’s experiences as a breast health educator as well as a jazzercise instructor, she’s observed how regular exercising helps depression symptoms and improves muscle strength.
“Since muscle mass is often lost during treatment, patients are now encouraged to work large muscle groups,” Johnson said. “Perhaps most notably, exercise during treatment helps to maintain range of motion.”
She’s seen how those battling lymphedema, a swelling of tissue due to radiation or removal of lymph nodes, do better with strength training. Her patients have reported fewer painful flair-ups and less numbness with regular exercise.
In an August 2009 article by the New England Journal of Medicine, breast cancer patients noted positive results as well. Many reported less pain in their chest, arms and hands with a slow and progressive weight-training program monitored by doctors.
For some breast cancer patients, the hardest part of exercise during treatment is finding the energy to do it.
Regular exercise was initially difficult for Shelbi Thompson, a breast cancer survivor whose spouse is a member of Combat Logistics Battalion 3. She underwent radiation treatment and found she had low energy levels. When she did have the strength, she’d make her workout sessions a family affair.
“I’d try to go on walks with my kids and spend time with them,” Thompson said. “I’d try to interact with them, and do things so I could see them laughing.”
Thompson now makes it a point to remain active after treatment as well. In her current routine, she makes time to swim and jogs with family or friends. She and her friend Samantha Brown regularly work out together and are coordinating a clothing sale this weekend with proceeds going to the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk.
For Honolulu cancer survivor Eve Lisa Conley, the strength to exercise during treatments also came with help from her family. Conley, a spouse of a Navy diver stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, said she kept going because she wanted to be there for her children.
“There were times when I really had no energy, but I did what I could and then rested,” she said. “I always made it a point to find the time.”
Conley tried to continue with her previous routine of running and CrossFit exercises during her chemotherapy treatments. When CrossFit became too difficult for her to do, resting and running helped her feel better.
After two years with no signs of cancer, Conley said keeping up regular fitness routine remains a mood booster.
“Every mile, every five minutes out there doing exercise was my way of saying, ‘I’m still here,’” she said. “I felt liberated. I still do when I exercise.”