Moving to Recovery: How Exercise Helps Cancer Patients

A local breast-cancer survivor started a yoga class to help others with cancer fight their disease. Turns out, exercise can do a world of good.

Karen Gagnier remembers how grateful she was to have a place she could go where the only thing asked of her was to breathe. While dealing with the physical and emotional side effects of her cancer treatment, closing her eyes, quieting her mind and moving her body to the best of her ability became critical components of her recovery.

Gagnier, 54, found a lump in her breast in 2006 and was diagnosed with breast cancer. She spent nearly all of the following year undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, and had a bilateral mastectomy as part of her cancer treatment. The treatments left her exhausted, in pain and stressed out, but a key player in her rehabilitation was a method she had already been practicing: yoga.

“To me, it was the single most important thing I did for myself throughout the procedures,” Gagnier says. Yoga helped her relax and make better decisions, as well as regain her energy after chemotherapy and movement after surgery. After only two sessions of physical therapy, she replaced the mundane 10-reps this, 10-reps that exercises with corresponding yoga poses to regain mobility. She still remembers the satisfaction she felt when she made her first upward-facing dog pose after treatment. Now, she can do cartwheels.

“You develop this disassociation with your body because you feel as if your body has betrayed you. Yoga helps bring you back,” Gagnier says. She feels that through everything her body went through, as well as everything she went through mentally during her cancer treatment, yoga helped make her stronger.

After experiencing the benefits of yoga firsthand, Gagnier wanted to share them with others. She became a certified yoga instructor and began teaching a yoga class at Focus Fitness of the Main Line specifically for cancer survivors. The class focuses on the physical as well as mental aspects of recovery, with restorative poses to help reduce stress and inversions to get the lymph moving and promote a healthy immune system. It is free to attend and Gagnier volunteers her time to teach it. While the majority of her students are breast-cancer survivors, the class is open to all cancer survivors.

“There is a comfort level knowing we’ve all been through the same thing,” Gagnier says.

Gagnier and her students aren’t the only ones who can say that physical activity has helped them during their cancer treatment. Katie Schmitz, associate professor of epidemiology at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, whose research focuses on the role of physical activity in the treatment and prevention of chronic diseases, says that there’s exciting new research that shows that exercising while you are undergoing cancer treatment—particularly chemotherapy—helps with cancer-related fatigue. In fact, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommends exercise, aerobic activity and walking as the No. 1 non-drug approach to dealing with cancer-related fatigue.

“The advice to rest, take it easy, don’t push yourself—which was sort of typical for a long time—is outdated and we need to change it. What we should be telling people is to avoid inactivity,” Schmitz says, adding that cancer patients are a diverse population and people’s abilities after treatment will vary depending on what they were treated for and their health before treatment. However, any risk associated with exercising after cancer treatment should account for the fact that there is also a risk to not exercising after cancer treatment, Schmitz says.

There is also research showing that blood supply to tumor cells is improved with exercise, and that this may help in delivering chemotherapy. This opens up the possibility that exercising while receiving chemotherapy could improve the quality of the response from the treatment.

And it’s not just treatment and symptoms that physical activity can aid. In the last year studies, particularly on breast and colon cancer, have been popping up that show that physical activity may actually reduce the risk of cancer reoccurrence. The evidence shows that if you do aerobic exercise for 30 to 60 minutes a day, it will reduce the risk of colon cancer coming back by 50 percent and breast cancer by 30 to 40 percent.

As Gagnier attests to, yoga has its benefits, too. In a study involving 400 breast-cancer patients, practicing yoga improved quality of life, fatigue and ability to sleep.

“It’s not just about zapping people with treatments, it’s about taking care of what’s left,” Gagnier says. For many, a cancer diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Now, a lot of treatment focuses on improving the quality of life for those living beyond cancer, and at the core of that lies something very important: Cancer patients still have millions of healthy cells. The extent to which those healthy cells are taken care of will have a huge impact on a person’s ability to have a good quality of life after the treatment, Schmitz says. Exercise is known to have positive effects at the cellular, molecular and genetic levels of all of these healthy cells.

“What I can guarantee those cancer survivors is that there are decades of research that show us that individuals who are more physically fit withstand any type of medical treatment better than someone who is overweight and sedentary,” Schmitz says. “You recover faster, you withstand treatment better, all of your healthy cells are ready. They’re in fighting shape.”

And if cancer is what you’re fighting, you want to be armed and ready.

Karen Gagnier’s class is taught on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:30 to 2:45 p.m. at Focus Fitness of the Main Line, 1111 East Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr.