How Exercise Can Help Breast Cancer Patients Recover

Exercise may be the last thing on a survivor’s mind, but physical activity can actually play an important role in healing.

Doctors aren’t sure why, but physical activity can have several positive effects on breast cancer patients, according to the National Cancer Institute. Not only does research suggest that exercise is safe for many breast cancer patients, but it can improve how your body functions.

Besides increasing your overall state of well-being, exercising after breast cancer treatment has three benefits:

1. Better outcomes.

One study found that exercising is directly linked to lessened recurrence and progression as well as greater survival of the disease. For example, women who exercised moderately (the equivalent to walking three to five hours a week, at an average pace) after a breast cancer diagnosis experienced a 40-to-50-percent reduction in recurrence and death than women who did not.

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“One of the most common side effects of breast cancer treatment (surgery, radiation, chemotherapy) is fatigue, which is actually best treated with exercise,” said Jason Ye, MD, assistant professor of clinical radiation oncology at Keck School of Medicine of USC and a radiation oncologist at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center of Keck Medicine of USC. “In practice, the more patients become sedentary due to fatigue, the worse the fatigue gets. It’s a vicious cycle.”

2. Controlled weight gain.

One of the side effects of cancer treatment is weight gain because many people reduce their physical activity after being diagnosed. On the contrary, keeping both body mass index and body weight in check can increase your chances for survival.

“The link between higher body mass index and worse survival is especially strong in breast cancer,” Dr. Ye said.

3. Increased quality of life.

Just as exercise before cancer can make you feel better both physically and mentally, it can do the same for you during and after your treatment.

 A clinical trial found that cancer survivors who exercised had an increased quality of life, including better sleep, positive body image and improved self-esteem. Another study determined that the positive effects of physical activity increased a patient’s overall quality of life.

“When I see breast cancer patients after surgery, I frequently offer them physical therapy to improve their arm mobility as they recover from the operation,” Dr. Ye said. “At Keck Medicine of USC, our physical therapists are experts in caring for breast cancer patients and can offer a wide range of ways to prevent future complications, such as lymphedema, as well.”

Before undertaking a full-on exercise regime, check with your doctor to help you develop a plan that is right for you. If you need guidance, work with a physical therapist to strengthen your body, or consult a list of exercises recommended by the American Cancer Society. Even if you are an avid exerciser, you don’t want to overexert yourself after cancer treatment.

For 40 years, the National Cancer Institute has recognized USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at Keck Medicine of USC as one of the leading comprehensive cancers centers in the country. If you are in the Los Angeles area, make an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visiting

By Heidi Tyline King