What can I do to preserve or improve my quality of life?

Advances in cancer detection and treatment have improved outcomes for cancer patients for the last 25 years.  This means there are more survivors alive today (in the US alone there are over 15 million) than there might have been otherwise.  These advances also mean people with late stage or metastatic diagnoses have a better chance of living longer, with potentially higher quality of life than before.

But, I am here to tell you that it’s not all in what happens at the clinic.  While the chance of dying from cancer in our country has decreased over time, the chance of dying from obesity if you have cancer is increasing.  Lifestyle factors are a huge part of this (i.e. smoking, physical inactivity, poor nutrition, excessive alcohol intake, lack of quality sleep, stress etc.). Everyone should move more, sit less, and do their absolute best to meet the recommendations for exercise.

So, getting back to the question “what can I do to preserve or improve my quality of life?” I absolutely love when people ask this question because it shows awareness for the fact that you do have some control in your quality of life - regardless of a late versus early stage cancer diagnosis, or even a diagnosis of cancer at all for that matter.  Medicine is a wonderful, incredible thing, and it truly saves lives and can help maintain quality of life. Medicine coupled with lifestyle changes is where even more magic happens.  Think - more life, less side effects.  Just like Outkast says - I AM FOR REAL.

Medical professionals thought for a long time exercise was not going to be helpful for cancer patients.  In fact, they encouraged rest and to avoid exercising because they believed it could worsen the situation.  Again, advances have shown otherwise, and we now know that exercise and movement are incredibly important for improving outcomes, quality of life, chance for survival, and reducing the severity of the often life-altering treatment-related side effects and risk for recurrence.

As I’ve shared on my recent posts on other social media platforms, the recommendation for cancer patients and survivors is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (or 75 minutes of vigorous) and at least 2 days per week of strength training the 8 major muscle groups.  They’ve also recently added avoid inactivity - move more and sit less.

So let’s break it down.  Aerobic exercise can be broken up into 5 30-minute sessions, or however you’d like to do it, so long as it’s 10-minutes at a time. If you’re able to bump up the intensity, and you want to, it’s 75 minutes total for the week, which again can be broken down into something like 5 15-minute sessions.  I will post, separately, more information about monitoring both aerobic and resistance exercise and progressing in both.

Strength training should be on your calendar at least two days each week, working the 8 major muscle groups. In order to properly recover and allow your body to adapt to the load, the strength training days should be non-consecutive, particularly if you are doing the same exercises each session.  The 8 major muscle groups are:

  • Shoulders

  • Arms

  • Chest

  • Abdomen

  • Back

  • Glutes

  • Thighs

  • Calves

It is a good idea to use all of these muscle groups in your exercise session, and I don’t recommend a “bi’s and back only” day. I will continue to post the exercises that I find helpful and enjoyable, and if they’re not doing that for you, please reach out and I will show you other that may.

Both aerobic exercise and strength training offer a whole list of benefits for people - cancer diagnosis or not.  Most importantly, since this is a cancer exercise platform, I want to highlight the benefits of movement are available to all stages of cancer.  While there’s still a lot of research that needs to be done, I feel we know enough about being sedentary to know that movement is the best thing you can do for yourself.

Aerobic exercise offers benefits for heart health, which is incredibly important for chemotherapy and the effects it has on the heart.  The cardiotoxic effects of chemotherapy can be mitigated by doing aerobic exercise before and during treatment, and you can recover from these effects after treatment.  For prostate cancer patients, the leading cause of death is cardiovascular disease, which aerobic exercise plays a large part in preventing.  It also helps with sleep function, cognitive function, circulation or blood flow, reducing fatigue, reducing risk for recurrence, and improving overall quality of life.  Studies in over 70,000 cancer patients have shown that the more active somebody is after a diagnosis for cancer, the less likely they were to die from cancer or any other cause.

Strength training is one of the best things you can do for yourself long term.  Specifically for a cancer patient or survivor, strength training brings improved physical function, improved hormone regulation, improved and preservation of bone strength, increased muscle mass, improved glucose control, better immune function, improved self-image/body image and self-esteem, and better cell health.  Cell health in particular is important because its one of the ways your body is better equipped to help your treatment fight cancer cells. More physiologic effects of strength training are still being examined, but what we know so far shows that it is too good to pass up.

For metastatic colorectal cancer patients, exercise has been associated with slowed progression of cancer and improved quality of life. For patients on palliative care, this means so much more than I can articulate.

Research has shown us that skeletal muscle loss is the most significant clinical event in cancer cahexia (weight loss, loss of appetite, etc.).  Cancer cahexia is very often associated with a poor outcome. Strength training before, during, and after treatment can help build and preserve muscle mass. Nutrition plays a key role in this as well, and for that you should seek advice from a registered dietician.

Both aerobic and strength exercise bring a lot of benefits which provide a collective increase of quality of life.  Picking up your children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews, being able to play with them, going to the grocery store and carrying your own groceries, walking the dog on all the walks they like to go on, being able to take care of yourself for longer, more life in your time you have.  It’s the best gift you can give yourself and your loved ones, and the improvements in quality of life are priceless. In situations when given months to a few years to live, every second counts.

That being said, if you absolutely hate the gym, please don’t spend your money or precious time there.  There are other ways to meet the recommendations for aerobic and strength training, and it is important that however you’re meeting them, you are enjoying what you’re doing.  And as always, if you aren’t sure if exercise is appropriate for you and some limitations you may be experiencing, ask your doctor and reach out to me for some more guidance.

The takeaway message here for “what can I do to preserve or improve my quality of life” is move more, sit less, and be sure to get aerobic and strength exercise in.

Sarah RobertsComment