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  • Q&A with Australian Health Practitioners

    What exercise can and should be done when undergoing cancer treatment?

    I'm currently undergoing treatment for cervical cancer which was detected a few months ago. What exercises should and can I participate in? I was fairly fit and active before diagnosis and commencing treatment.
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    Deb Pickersgill

    Exercise Physiologist

    Deb is a qualified and accredited exercise physiologist with both national and international accreditations focused on the prescription of exercise to all individuals including those … View Profile

    Exercising  during cancer treatment can often be an overwhelming prospect. Even for those individuals with a exercise and physical training history may find themselves dealing with a new set of circumstances regarding their physical condition and general health compared to before diagnosis.  Exercise is effective in improving physical function, quality of life and countering cancer treatment related side effects such as fatigue and nausea. 

    Programs designed for a cancer client  should be well‐designed by well educated, and well‐informed professionals; otherwise sometimes the exercise options and moreover the daunting prospect of finding a place to start for any person may be overwhelming.

    The general rule or recommendation is that doing something is better than nothing at all. However, specific intensities of activity, modes of exercise and duration of exercise/s is very specific to the person. Individual circumstances, cancer treatment history and current physical health status, may well be the ruling factors in what exercises or physical activity program you should be performing or starting with.   

    General exercise prescription for persons undertaking or having completed cancer treatment include the following outlines;–

    • Low to moderate intensity
    • Regular frequency (3‐5 times/week), minimum 20 mins per session
    • Involving aerobic, resistance or strength exercises, postural and/or flexibility related routines and other mixed exercise types. 

    The type of cancer you have, your cancer treatment, your stamina, strength, and fitness level all affect your ability to exercise. What may be of low or moderate intensity for a healthy person may seem like a high intensity activity for some cancer patients and survivors. While some people can safely begin their own exercise program, many will have better results with the help of an cancer exercise specialist, physiotherapist , or accredited exercise physiologist. Be sure to get approval from your doctor first, and be sure that the person knows about your diagnosis and limitations. These specially trained professionals can help you find the right environment for you as well as the type, frequency, duration, and intensity of exercise that is right for you.

    While there are many reasons for being physically active during cancer treatment, each person's exercise program should be based on what is safe, effective, and enjoyable for that person. Your exercises may take into account any exercise program you already follow, what you can physically cope with now and any physical problems or physical limitation you may currently be experiencing. It is important that any exercises or activity program is specifically tailored to meet your physical needs as well as meeting your interests.

    Where surgery has been a part of the cancer treatment, the doctor may recommend some kinds of movement or therapeutic exercise initially to prevent complications and maintain range of motion in the joints and muscles before moving on to more physically demanding routines.

    How do I get started?
    If you are being treated for cancer or have recently finished treatment, it is important to consult a doctor before starting an exercise program. You could also discuss with your GP your eligibility for a referral to an Accredited Exercise Physiologist or a physiotherapist. Medicare offers some rebates for visits to allied health professionals such as these to help you get started and gain information and instruction specifically suited to your needs.

    There has also been the development of a global initiative called Exercise Is Medicine (EIM) and a number of detailed fact sheets have been produced for the public including cancer patients, and also including Gynecological Cancer and can be found on the Exercise is Medicine website – and these are a great source of information at no cost. 

    The EIM website and Exercise & Sport Science Australia (ESSA) also provides resources and directories to try and locate an Accredited Exercise Physiologists (AEP) and moreover those AEP’s who work with Cancer clients specifically that can assist you with your specific needs and goals. Cancer Exercise Specialists are also  uniquely trained to assess, design and implement individual and group exercise and fitness programs for those diagnosed with cancer, in treatment and those individuals now in survivorship recovering from their treatment related symptoms.

    Exercise programs are not limited to gyms, old training habits or those fantastic ‘abdominal and life-altering’ programs and devices we see advertised on a regular basis. Enquiring with your local council and organisations, such as state cancer council’s will turn up a host of events and groups where you can meet likeminded people who get out and exercise and have a lot of fun in the process. Moreover, these organisation’s may also assist in providing particular referral information  to professionals who work specifically with cancer clients that can assist you with your specific needs, emotional support and design a program exclusively tailored to you.

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