Just Do It: Breast Cancer Survivors and Exercise

Following up on last week’s exercise post, I wanted to focus on two recent studies that really drive home the benefits of physical activity for breast cancer survivors. If you’re not exercising now, here’s why you should consider it.

In 2017, Hamer and Warner published a review in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (Open Access link here). They analyzed 67 existing studies in an effort to ascertain what lifestyle factors were most important in reducing the risk of breast cancer recurrence in survivors.

Whatever you can do right now is enough to start out with. Just keep moving!

The results were striking: of all the lifestyle variables that the researchers looked at, exercise came out on top. They found that engaging in moderate exercise resulted in a 40% decrease in cancer recurrence. This included easily-adoptable, low-cost programs such as brisk walking.

I want to stress: they weren’t talking about doing crazy-high amounts of exercise, but simply adhering to the current physical activity recommendations for US adults, which are as follows (summarized by the American Heart Association and taken from their website):

Sadly, only 13% of recent breast cancer survivors actually met those exercise guidelines, and that number dropped even more as time went on. Consider how that affects overall cancer rates, when we talk about our chances as survivors: if the vast majority of the population is not engaging in a beneficial habit, the reported recurrence rates will reflect that. However, if you do incorporate exercise into your life, one could argue that your chances of recurrence are significantly improved over the numbers usually cited.

In addition, an increase of at least 10% of body weight after breast cancer diagnosis, which unfortunately happens often, increased both risk of recurrence and mortality. Again, patients who exercised were able to avoid this weight gain, improving their chances for disease free survival.

Nonetheless, while it seemed relatively straightforward to achieve the percent reduction in recurrence, the researchers stressed two very important points: (1) this reduction came after finishing treatments, not in lieu of them, so one should not assume that exercise would necessarily take the place of conventional cancer treatments, and (2) sadly, some cancers will recur even if the survivor is doing everything “right” and so if there is a recurrence, it should not be taken as the individual not doing enough. That’s the cruel unfairness of cancer.

It’s never too late to start, but it’s never too early either! Pick a sport and make it yours!

The second study was original research with high-risk breast cancer patients by Cannioto et al. (2020), published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (Open Access link here). The study participants filled out a questionnaire about their exercise habits at four time points: (1) when they enrolled in the study after diagnosis (this question asked about pre-diagnosis exercise habits), (2) during chemotherapy, (3) one year after finishing treatment, and (4) two years after finishing treatment.

Once again, exercise was shown as having a significant impact: women who met the guidelines for physical activity (150 minutes/week of moderate exercise) before, during and after treatment had a 55% lower risk of recurrence and 68% lower risk of dying than those who didn’t meet the guidelines.

Even those who only started exercising after finishing treatment still had a significantly reduced risk of both recurrence and death compared to those who didn’t exercise at all. Additionally, benefits were also seen for those who consistently exercised, even if they didn’t fully meet the guidelines. So it seems that any exercise that these high-risk cancer survivors did was still better than not doing anything at all.

The same holds for you!

Both of these studies convey the importance of engaging in physical activity. Exercise is critical for the well-being of all humans, but even more so for breast cancer survivors. Think: when we receive a cancer diagnosis, we are ready to undergo potentially dangerous treatments, risking debilitating side effects that leave us bald, exhausted and wretched.

So why not engage in something as beneficial for body and spirit as moderate physical activity to help prevent the possibility of having to repeat the cancer treatment again?

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A few more bits of information:

The easy-to-read executive summary of the US Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans can be found here.

For a plain-language synopsis of the Hamer and Warner (2017) review, see this Healio interview with co-author Dr. Ellen Warner.

For a plain-language synopsis of the Cannioto et al. (2020) paper, see this article in breastcancer.org.

Tailor your exercise to your abilities…and then keep going!

Keep in mind that terms such as “moderate” and “intense” are relative to YOU. someone just starting out is not going to be able to handle the same level of intensity as a highly-trained individual, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Start where you are–it’s okay.

Finally, Dr. Robert Sallis, chairman of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Exercise Is Medicine inititative, has said, “If we had a pill that conferred the proven health benefits of exercise, physicians would prescribe it to every patient and healthcare systems would find a way to make sure every patient had access to this wonder drug.”

The two studies here show exactly why!

A Year on Letrozole

Warning: This is going to be a bit of a gripe-fest…

This coming week marks my one-year anniversary of taking letrozole, an aromatase inhibitor designed to reduce the risk of recurrence of my breast cancer by reducing the levels of estradiol (precurser to estrogen) in the body.

Aromatase inhibitors are problematic. Significant numbers of women discontinue taking these medications prior to the planned end of treatment, and this is due mainly to side effects (Kadakia et al., 2016, The Oncologist).

A year into this, I can completely relate. When I was on tamoxifen, the side effects were less well-defined. With letrozole, they’re unmistakable.

Most infuriating are the physical ones, especially the arthralgia (joint pain). I’m an ardent exerciser, regularly engaging in rowing, lifting weights and interval training. Arthralgia puts obvious limitations on my workouts. Maintaining muscle is harder and as a result I need to work out more intensely. So I push it, but it feels like I’m treading water with an anvil tied around my neck. I know that working out and building muscle is going to be tough at age 54, but I question the benefits of a drug purported to lessen the chance of cancer recurrence when it’s affecting my ability to engage in something (exercise) which is strongly associated with a decreased risk of cancer (Cannioto et al., 2020, JCNI). It doesn’t seem to make sense.

No matter how tired I am in the evening, some nights are restless and NOT refreshing.

Another effect of the drop in estrogen is fatigue, which can be intense by the end of the day. Then, okay, I go to bed early, but my sleep quality is hit-or-miss. Sometimes I experience weird “restless leg” symptoms. This is a “gripping” or aching sensation that can only be aleviated by moving my legs. Any position that feels comfortable at the moment soon won’t, and I do an awkward dance as I move around in bed. Not a great recipe for falling asleep. Luckily this doesn’t occur every night, but when it does, it impacts the next workday.

As a side note, I usually take magnesium supplements before bed, not only to aid in muscle recovery, but also to help with sleep. I don’t know what my nights would be like if I didn’t take them regularly, and I’m not willing to find out.

Over time, the pain in my joints and limbs has increased. It’s most pronounced in my fingers, toes, ankles, hips and elbows, and I’m generally most achey as I’m going to sleep and when I wake in the morning. Sometimes it’s bad enough that it wakes me at night–usually a burning sensation in my fingers and toes–but that happens only occasionally.

By the way, in case you’re wondering if that’s bone metastases instead of side effects, trust me, I’ve already thought about that. I’ve also done the obligatory googling, and while I’ll let my oncologist know about the pain at my next appointment, I don’t think it’s metastasis. These symptoms are just your garden-variety letrozole side effects.

One of the most striking physical side effects (that I could actually show to other people!) didn’t kick in until about Month 8 of taking the letrozole, when the stiffness in my fingers escalated to the point where several of them would lock up in the morning. If I made a fist and then attempted to open my hand, a few of my fingers would “stick” and, as I continued to try to straighten them, they’d suddenly sproing open.

I’ve already mentioned the physical fatigue, but there’s a deeper, darker side to this, which I’ve written about previously. The rest of my family — husband and two teenagers — are up and lively in the evening as I’m dragging my sorry butt to bed. I feel a strong disconnect from them. More specifically, I feel old, which is not surprising, since decreased estrogen is associated with ageing. I feel like I don’t belong with my family anymore, like there’s a distance between us. So, I’m taking a medication to help prevent a possible recurrence of my breast cancer, but the price I’m paying for that reduced risk seems pretty steep.

The disconnect from my family makes me feel alone…and old.

Adding to that feeling of disconnect is the sudden drop in my libido. Perhaps this would have been easier to take if I were single, or divorced (which is the direction it sometimes feels this is heading). I’ve already written about the issue here so I won’t rehash all my frustration. Suffice it to say that while sexual side effects are mentioned in the scientific literature and in doctors’ offices, they’re not really talked about from the standpoint of the effect they have on relationships. This is one of those intangible issues that is difficult to quantify and even more difficult to discuss.

There are also cognitive problems that involve (1) concentration, (2) focus and (3) memory. Listen, I need all three of those for work. I cannot express how crippling it feels trying to learn new convoluted financial software when my brain simply refuses to cooperate. Truly, taking a mindfulness break helps immensely, but it simply doesn’t solve the problem. It just keeps me from putting my fist through my monitor.

Ah, yes, irritability. Put that down as another side effect.

This would be me. If I were a baboon. And used the Oracle Financial System.

So I’m a year into letrozole and I’m searching through the scientific literature to see what, truly, are the rates of recurrence for women who discontinue the medication prematurely, and what other factors come into play in terms of reducing risks.

My goal is to get through at least five years of combined endocrine therapy (tamoxifen and letrozole), and I’m already more than halfway there, having finished two years of tamoxifen before I got on the aromatase inhibitor train. I mean, only two more years of this.

Maybe I’ve hit the high mark of side effects and they won’t get any worse? Maybe?

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Note: the side effects I’ve mentioned are not the only ones that occur with aromatase inhibitors. These are simply the big ones for me. Before you start any treatment, make sure you discuss with your oncologist what sort of adverse reactions you can expect and what you can do to mitigate them.

(Almost) Two Years on Tamoxifen: A Change in Plans

This weekend would have marked two years of taking tamoxifen, the estradiol-blocking medication that is supposed to keep my hormone-positive breast cancer from recurring.

As it turns out, there will be no such commemoration. Several weeks ago, I started noticing a funny cramping feeling in the general area of my uterus. It was light and under any other circumstances, I would have ignored it, but use of tamoxifen is associated with an increased risk of endometrial/uterine cancer, so it kept me on edge.

It’s worth noting that the increased risk is actually for postmenopausal women, and to the best of my knowledge, I was not yet postmenopausal. That’s why pre- and perimenopausal women are started on tamoxifen but taken off of it as soon as they go through menopause. Still the sensation, although intermittent, didn’t go away.

I finally called my oncologist. As it was, I was wary of tamoxifen – I already blamed it for a number of other negative things that I experienced: fatigue, hair thinning, low libido, cognitive issues, mood swings, general misery…all of those and more were listed as possible side effects.

I complained about the light cramping to an oncological nurse, who was surprised that I didn’t have a recent pap smear on record, because according to her, the oncologist wanted me to have one yearly. Mind you, pap smears are for cervical cancer, and I wasn’t at an increased risk for that. But whatever. The nurse gave me her blessing to stay off tamoxifen until I next saw the oncologist.

Conveniently, my oncologist appointment was in three days.

I was stressed, because if there’s one thing that being a cancer survivor made me good at, it was stressing. So much so, that my blood pressure hit 165/95 at my appointment. I couldn’t get over how ridiculous that was and how my thoughts had generated that sort of a reaction. I don’t think my pressure was even that high before my cancer surgery, at a time when my anxiety was raging and everything felt out of control.

I had a prolonged discussion (negotiation?) with my oncologist. In the end, we decided the following: I could take a month off tamoxifen and meet with him again in six weeks. In the meantime, I would go to my gynecologist to rule out endometrial cancer. (Incidentally, a week later at the gynecologist’s office my blood pressure was back down to a very reasonable 102/64.)

No more tamoxifen? Yeah, I feel like celebrating.

My oncologist and my clinical counselor (who I discovered had spoken to him about me) thought that some of the worst side effects that I was experiencing were not due to tamoxifen, but anxiety. My onc suggested that if nothing improved after a month off tamoxifen, I should consider anti-anxiety meds.

But he also checked my hormone levels to see where I was in my journey into menopause. A few days later, I got the news: I was officially postmenopausal and was told to not restart tamoxifen.

So, okay, no more tamoxifen. I was also quite happy that I managed to transition through menopause without any significant hot flashes. The downside of this was, however, that I would be put on an aromatase inhibitor, which came with its own set of side effects, not the least of which was significant bone pain and bone density loss.

Or at least those were some of the effects that I remembered from the last time that I read about them, which was a while ago. This time, I’ve decided, I won’t go back and research all the negatives of the medication. Anxiety does hit me hard, I have to admit, and I want to be sure that I’m really experiencing what I’m experiencing and not simply being influenced by what I’ve read.

So I’ll give the new medication a fair shake and give myself a break by not getting worked up by what *might* happen. As the gynecologist said, looking over my bloodwork, “Actually, you’re really healthy, except for having had breast cancer.” I’m going to go with that and see where it takes me.

Cancer’s No Big Deal…Except That It Is

You’d think that by now, over a year since finishing most of my breast cancer treatment, I would drop the subject and get on with things. But, no, cancer isn’t like that — and apparently, neither am I. Just when I think I’ve moved on, something else comes up. So here goes:

Breast cancer has had me see-sawing between two states of mind.

On the one hand, when I was going through treatment, I didn’t want people to feel uneasy talking to me (because they do!). I downplayed the cancer diagnosis and tried to be as matter-of-fact as possible, all with a pleasant smile and carefree shrug. Yeah, surgery-chemo-radiation, no biggie. My focus was on mitigating their uncomfortable reactions — in my mind, they were the ones needing the comforting and support.

That’s because telling someone I had cancer often made them squirm. They didn’t know the “right” thing to say, afraid of hurting or upsetting me, even though the reality was that what was inside my head was far worse than anything they could have said. So I always tried to crack a joke about my bald scalp or discolored nails as if to tell them I’m cool with it.

This extended into post-treatment life. Since I feel a little distance between the disease and me, I don’t always remember that I can catch people off guard when I talk about cancer. People still blush and stumble on words, looking like they want to change the subject. I always try to make it no big deal.

But on the other hand, the reality is that cancer is serious. Treatment can be all sorts of horrible and there are no guarantees about anything. Everyone who’s had breast cancer has to live with the uncertainty of its return. And with the large number of women who have experienced or are still wading through different stages of treatment, there’s a lot of suffering going on.

I know, I know, I know. Things will be fine.

Except when they’re not.

And so, I struggle with people telling me not to focus on the past. Obviously, that would be helpful. But it’s not easy, because even when treatment is over, the fear remains. Cancer strode in like an arrogant rake, dragged me around the block a few times and left an indelible mark on my psyche. My health is back and I’ve regained a lot of physical strength, but there’s that niggling fear that cancer will return and take it all again, and the emotional pain associated with that potentiality stifles any celebration. It was easier to focus on getting through chemo and radiation than to wander into the Wild West of the future.

So I fight with myself. Sometimes I need to talk about how miserable it was and how angry it made me (one side of the seesaw), all the while not wanting to make people uncomfortable about it (the other side). That, of course, is not a successful combination. Ultimately, I put on a brave face, take a deep breath and quietly hurt inside.

But don’t worry, after I write about it, I can shake off these feelings and I’m okay.

Except when I’m not.

View from the Waiting Room

I am weirdly at ease.

Today is my 3-D mammogram, the one that will either confirm that I’m in breast cancer remission or that I’m going to have another rotten year (or more). Two years ago, around this time, I was completely racked with anxiety in preparation for the diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound that would detect my cancer.

I feel placid. Granted, I do self-exams on an almost-weekly basis (it’s a survivor thing) and was checked out by my oncologist early last month, so I know there’s nothing palpable there, although the 3-D mammogram could pick something smaller up. But I’ve also matured in my ability to let go of thoughts that drag my mind away to wild extremes, and instead accept what is happening in the moment.

I admit that I’m holding off on travel and hair expenses until after my mammogram, because if my cancer comes back, the money spent on them would be better put towards treatment. Neither a cross-country flight nor an edgy new haircut would be in the cards for me.

If I could have one superpower, it would be to remain calm in every situation.

Another reason for waiting on making plans? It’s because the agony associated with desperately clinging to the desire to be cancer-free and then having those hopes dashed is excruciating. So for the moment, hanging around in limbo with less emotion invested in an outcome provides more comfort.

I started meditating in an effort to free myself of expectations. Today I am able to make space within myself to hold the possibility of both remission and recurrence, and then to think about neither.

So I sit in a comfy robe as I wait for the radiologist’s assessment, feeling the warmth of the cup of tea in my hand. I am here now, focused on the present instead of potential outcomes. And this is the most peaceful place to be.

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Shortly after I wrote the above, the radiologist came in to confirm the good news. Another year, another clean bill of health.

Last year when I got the “all-clear” I was still finishing up treatments. And the news felt like a huge release.

This year, I felt much calmer. Not gonna lie — somewhere inside, try as I might to release all expectations, I still expected to be okay. But I was able to not focus on the outcome of the mammogram and instead go with the flow of the day. This is a first for me, so my ability to maintain that level of calm may be more significant than being cancer-free.

Oh, who am I kidding? Being cancer-free kicks ass!