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Will I Really Feel Better? Breast Cancer Patients Exercise During Treatment


One of the last things you may feel like doing if you are undergoing treatment for breast cancer is to exercise. However, a new study suggests breast cancer patients who exercise during treatment can reduce fatigue and enhance quality of life.

Will exercise really help me feel better?

Most of the more than 226,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer each year (2012 estimate) undergo some type of surgery, according to the American Cancer Society. For most women who have stage I or II breast cancer, the surgery usually is a lumpectomy or partial mastectomy plus radiation therapy.

Radiation therapy is not always a given and can frequently be bypassed if the tumor was 2 cm or less with clear margins, the tumor was hormone receptor-positive and the woman is receiving hormone therapy (e.g., tamoxifen, aromatase inhibitor), or if no lymph nodes were involved.

The stress and side effects associated with breast cancer treatment can be overwhelming, and impact women in every segment of their lives, including their relationships, family life, work activities, and social life. Could a lifestyle activity such as physical exercise be beneficial?

This question was explored by lead author Jamie M. Stagl, MS, doctoral student in clinical Health Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Miami, and her team. The study group included 240 women who had recently been diagnosed with non-metastatic breast cancer and who had undergone surgery within the past four to 10 weeks, with post-surgery treatment that included radiation or chemotherapy.

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The women were randomly assigned to attend either a 10-week group intervention called Cognitive Behavioral Stress Management (CBSM) or a one-day self-help group. The researchers also monitored the women’s self-reported physical exercise activities.

Women in the CBSM group were shown relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and deep breathing, and also were exposed to cognitive-behavioral therapy that included anger management and coping skills. In the one-day self-help group, women received educational information on breast cancer, side effects, nutrition, and similar materials.

When the researchers turned their attention to how physical exercise affected the women in both groups, they discovered that those who exercised before and during treatment experienced less side effects such as depression and fatigue and reported an overall better quality of life.

Previous studies have shown that stress management improves breast cancer treatment, and now the results of this new study indicated that including physical exercise can make women feel even better. According to Stagl, the women in the CBSM group who increased their exercise activities had the most benefit in terms of fatigue, depression, and quality of life.

Before the women entered the study, they reported an average of 158 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity and 24 minutes of vigorous activity each week. At the end of the group interventions, the study participants reported an average of 275 minutes of moderate activity and nearly 1 hour of vigorous exercise per week.

The results of this study indicate that physical exercise has a positive impact on a breast cancer patient’s mental health. They also suggest that a combination of stress management and physical exercise is a win/win for breast cancer patients who are undergoing treatment.

American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
Stagl J et al. Physical activity adds to the effects of stress management intervention on fatigue interference, depression, and functional quality of life during treatment for breast cancer. Presented to the Society of Behavioral Medicine, April 13, 2012



As an exercise physiologist, I've always appreciated the benefits of physical exercise, but never as much as when I heard I had cancer. Being in peak physical condition prior to treatments played a tremendous role in my ability to handle surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Exercise will help reduce recovery times, combat fatigue and lift your spirits. Just do it :-)
Thank you for your comment and encouragement for cancer patients.
My pleasure! My upcoming website Working Our Cancer is devoted entirely to helping educate others on the importance of exercise before during and after a cancer diagnosis. I'll let you know when it's up and running. In the meantime, thank you for helping to spread the word as well!
Your website sounds like a helpful one, and I look forward to hearing more about it. I'm sure others will benefit as well.