Physical Activity Improves Outcomes for Patients with Breast Cancer and Survivors

Physical activity has been linked to cancer survival benefits.
Physical activity has been linked to cancer survival benefits.

Throughout the years, we have come to understand and appreciate the benefits of physical activity in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Studies have shown this knowledge can be particularly helpful and healing to many people, especially those with breast cancer. The impact is remarkable on both mental and physical health. 

Many health care professionals who have worked with people with breast cancer can attest that the news is often followed by unavoidable and uncomfortable changes. It is not uncommon for emotions to shift from the initial diagnosis, throughout the course of treatment, and beyond into survivorship. The shock of being told one has breast cancer, the stress of managing treatment, and the fears of recurrence can be overwhelming.

Physical changes after operative intervention or fatigue after a chemotherapy regimen, for example, can contribute to increased feelings of depression, despair, and isolation. Many patients feel a lack of control over the influence the diagnosis has taken on their minds and their bodies, leaving them feeling powerless. This article demonstrates how physical activity can improve multiple aspects of quality of life for both patients and survivors of breast cancer.

Mental and Physical Benefits

Physical activity has been shown to improve mental health for people with breast cancer. For instance, both anxiety1 and depression2,3 are reduced in those patients who include physical activity as part of their routine. The benefits are so remarkable that the effects are often similar to psychotherapy or pharmaceutical intervention for mild to moderate depression.3 Overwhelming anxiety or depression can be disruptive to everyday life; finding useful ways to manage these feelings can bring relief to people who feel lost or hopeless.

Whether changes in mood are influenced by the diagnosis itself or side effects from the treatments, decreased mental health can impair functioning and quality of life. Anxiety and depression may originate from fears related to the diagnosis and how it will impact patients' plans for the future. Recurrence and dying from breast cancer are common worries that affect how patients view their lives. Studies have shown that including physical activity can reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer1,4; furthermore, physical activity can reduce the chances of disease recurrence.5 Patients can potentially improve their outcomes by incorporating fitness in their lives.

Many side effects of breast cancer and its treatment options can be especially distressing and life altering. Common side effects such as pain and fatigue lower quality of life and impact day-to-day functioning. Studies have shown that these side effects could be managed with physical activity,2,3 which can be comforting to patients who struggle to diminish their impact.

As health care professionals, we can empower our patients and provide the resources they need to flourish. This empowerment can lead to increased motivation for self-improvement. Physical activity has been shown to instill self-confidence in personal perception of capability and the power to gain some control over one's body and care.3 Patients appreciate this encouragement to improve themselves and their lives.

From moderate walking or a more vigorous jog, to taking up bicycling or swimming,4 there are a variety of activities for patients to keep active and inspired. We can encourage patients to be self-aware and appreciate that some form of activity is better than none.1 Patients can feel encouraged to know that their efforts to include physical activity, even if minimal, are beneficial.  

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