Straight Talk about Mesothelioma, a blog series created by Michael T. Milano, M.D., Ph.D., a radiation oncology specialist, as a resource for mesothelioma patients and their loved ones.
Historically, people undergoing treatment for chronic illnesses, like cancer, have been told to rest as much as possible. Oncologists now agree that too much rest can lead to muscle weakness and atrophy as well as other chronic complications; against common belief, excessive resting does not reduce fatigue.
For many cancer patients, exercise is a safe way to relieve the physical and mental side effects of cancer treatment – including fatigue, nausea, and other symptoms that seem to hinder exercise – even if the cancer is advanced or affects the lungs.
For example, mesothelioma, a cancer arising from the lining of the lungs, and caused exclusively by asbestos, creates breathing difficulties, chest pain, and reduced energy levels. Though advanced-stage mesothelioma patients may not feel up to it, they must avoid inactivity. Even gentle activity can help develop endurance if done regularly.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recommends that adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week. Most cancer patients should avoid intense activities such as heavy weightlifting or long-distance running, especially if they are not accustomed to this level of exertion.
The following are light-to-moderate alternatives that can be integrated into everyday life.
Walking, hiking, bicycling, and swimming are all aerobic exercises that get the heart rate up. A goal for cardiovascular exercise is 30 minutes per day at least 5 days a week. Those not accustomed to aerobic exercise should start with shorter times (around 10 minutes) and less intense activity with a plan to progress incrementally. One could also aim for three 10-minute blocks – for example, 3 short, brisk walks in a day.
Along with aerobic exercise, 2 days per week of muscle training can improve muscle tone, fat burning, and metabolism as well as help maintain bone density. This is especially beneficial for cancer patients, many of whom lose bone density faster than people without cancer. Those not accustomed to strength training can start with simple light-weight or body-weight exercises such as arm curls and crunches.
Balance and Stretching
Good balance is vital for avoiding injury during workouts, particularly for cancer patients using medications that impair balance. Yoga and tai chi are great balance- and wellness-focused exercises that combine movement, breathing, and meditation. Balance exercises can also be as simple as walking a narrow path, single-leg stands, or heel raises. Similarly, stretching can help patients regain mobility and strength in areas of the body affected by surgery.
Housekeeping and Gardening
Mowing the lawn and weeding the garden, scrubbing the kitchen, and washing the car all provide physical workouts. But exercise should, above all, be fun. Consider involving family and friends in household chores and active games in the garden or at the park.
Before Getting Started
Always check in with your doctor before starting an exercise program, and start slow – even if you were active before diagnosis. Your doctor can tailor your routine accordingly, depending on your cancer stage, fitness level, other treatments, and unique symptoms.
Working with a trainer or with a group can also provide guidance and oversight. Some communities offer affordable exercise and wellness programs – such as the LIVESTRONG at the YMCA – for cancer survivors. The American Cancer Society (ACS) regards exercise as imperative for cancer patients such as those with mesothelioma.
We still don’t know how physical activity affects recovery from cancer, but we do know it can reduce some risks of side effects. Add that to its proven benefits to physical and mental well-being and quality of life, and recovery becomes considerably more manageable.