Fifteen years ago doctors might have advised breast cancer patients not to exercise during and after treatment. However, according to Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, women that exercise are fifty percent more likely to survive breast cancer.[i] It’s also known that women that have not made a habit of exercising in their life are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. According to a study done by Women’s Contraceptive and Reproductive Experiences (CARE) “women who reported exercising at least 1.3 hours a week on average since age 10 had about a 20% lower risk of having been diagnosed with breast cancer than women who were less active.”[ii] But why is this the case?
It has to do with the types of estrogen in a woman’s body and how they’re affected by exercise. The University of Minnesota conducted a study where they had a few hundred women exercise for four months, five days a week, and another group remain sedentary for the same amount of time.
“Among women who worked out, urine samples taken after the study period contained lower levels of a potentially cancer-causing estrogen byproduct called 16α-hydroxyestrone (16α-OHE1) and higher of a harmless estrogen byproduct called 2-hydroxyestrone (2-OHE1). Among the sedentary study participants, those levels did not change. Past research has shown a ratio of more 2-OHE1 to less 16α-OHE1 significantly lowers a woman’s risk for breast cancer, says study coauthor Mindy Kurzer, PhD, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota.”[iii]
Not only is exercise important in preventing breast cancer, but studies show that it helps during treatment as well. Exercise will increase energy, boost your mood and increase muscle strength-all exactly what you need.[iv] Studies also show that people going through chemotherapy that exercise for at least thirty minutes feel considerably less fatigued than people that don’t.[v]
After surgery, stretching and small exercises at a slow pace are also beneficial. For specific exercises and examples, visit this website. If you take too long a break from exercise after surgery, stiffness and loss of range of motion can occur. Exercise has also been proven to reduce the risk of recurrence after recovery.[vi] However, it’s important to remember that some exercises will be riskier for breast cancer survivors. Examples include: swimming laps with arm movements, using resistance bands, pull-ups, push-ups, some yoga poses, P90X, elliptical machines, tennis and cross country skiing. Of course, everyone is different and if you’re unsure what you’re capable of, always ask your physician or surgeon.