Exercise and Cancer

One of the biggest things I noticed after my diagnosis and during treatment was how much cancer changed my relationship with my body. I’ve personally gone through a lot of highs and lows with my body and the way that I think about it and view it. I’ve fought through disordered eating, poor body image, and a whole lot of negative self talk. I used to view diet and exercise more as a punishment than anything – it was something I did because I wasn’t good enough or fit enough or toned enough.

Cancer changed that for me – and as much as I hate that it took this diagnosis to do that, I’m grateful for the way my mindset has shifted. I view healthy eating as something that I do because I want to fuel my body with good stuff, not because I want to deprive it. I view exercise as something that I do because I want to thank my body for the strength it has shown to carry me through treatment and to foster that strength going forward.

The topic of exercise is near and dear to my heart. Though throughout my life my mindset on it has gone up and down, I’ve always been an athlete at heart. I danced and competed in gymnastics throughout high school and college, and in grad school became a runner. Post diagnosis I’m newly identifying myself as a crew athlete (shoutout to Recovery On Water)! Over the last 10 or so years, more and more research has come out that gives evidence to just how important physical activity is for cancer prevention and for survival post diagnosis, and I wanted to share some of that information with you today. I apologize if this seems too “science-y” for a blog, but I am a medical professional at my core, and I don’t want to present information that isn’t based in strong evidence!

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) regularly publishes exercises guidelines for the general population, but they have been trying to provide better guidelines for cancer survivors as well. In 2018, they published a systematic review of epidemiological studies on physical activity and cancer prevention and survival. The review found that there was strong evidence for a relationship between physical activity level and a variety of cancers (Breast included, among many others), and noted that those who were more physically active had a relatively reduced risk of these cancers ranging from 10-20%. There was also moderate evidence that a higher level of physical activity reduces all-cause mortality and cancer-related mortality in breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers up to 40-50%! More research is needed to more definitively determine the relationships between physical activity levels and cancer diagnosis and survival, but there is a clear link.


In 2016, Friedenreich et al published a review, and found that post-diagnosis exercise showed a pooled risk reduction of cancer related mortality by 38% for breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers. Furthermore, they noted that there was a relationship between physical activity level and breast cancer recurrence despite whether the tumor markers were hormone positive or HER2 positive or not – every breastie can benefit!


The possible prevention and survival benefits aside, exercise has also been shown to have significant positive effects on mental health. I won’t go into research on that here, but it has been well documented that exercise can have a positive impact on depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.


The goal is for the ACSM to publish specific guidelines for exercise prescription for cancer survivors in 2019. Until then, we can try to follow the guidelines for general adults (linked here), with modifications as needed (you are an individual, not a statistic!), and obviously always with the approval of and under the supervision of your medical team. The general guidelines for adults are summarized on page 8 of that document as follows, “For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week.”

Lastly, I’ve found that exercise is a way to regain some sense of CONTROL during and after treatment. So much of what we go through feels out of our hands and it can leave us feeling helpless and lost. Budgeting time to exercise a few times a week is truly something that you can control. No matter how long/short or intense (or not) it is, it is something that YOU CHOSE to do for yourself. Choose a way to move your body that feels good for you, and get out there!


What are your favorite ways to get moving? Let me know in the comments, or drop me a line on Instagram at @affirmationsfromcancer!

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