Four Minutes of Hovering

Last week I had a 3-D mammogram. This scan marks a bit over five years since the diagnostic test that indicated I had a solid tumor on the outside of my left breast.

Heading into this appointment, I wasn’t particularly worried. Yes, I admit to having little heartbeat skips over “lumps” in my breast that aren’t really lumps: if you recall, I had felt something before my last oncologist visit; my doctor reassured me it was nothing.

I will never again hear the word “lump” and NOT think of cancer.

And because last August I’d had a chest MRI, a more sensitive scan than even a 3-D mammogram, it was HIGHLY unlikely that there was anything to be found in this mammogram.

But still, after the pictures were taken and the mammography technician left the room to consult with the radiologist, I got that all-too-familiar uneasy feeling.

WHY? I knew that the radiologist wouldn’t find anything. The technician practically said that out loud, since she was aware of my recent MRI.

But still.

I sat alone in the mammography room, breathing, looking at the clock on the wall and simply hovering. My attention was like a butterfly looking for a place to alight. I wasn’t holding my breath…but mentally, I had put the rest of my life on hold when the tech stepped out the door.

It took all of four minutes and the mammographer returned and gave me two thumbs up.

For four minutes, I had no plans for anything outside of the room I was in.

I breathed a sigh even though I had expected the good news. And while I wasn’t “freaking out” waiting for the response, it became apparent to me that I might always feel uneasy during that period of uncertainty.

I didn’t want that. I wanted to be completely unaffected, as if I had never had a bad experience and my heart was calm.

But hovering it was, because there are no guarantees. And as the gears of my life started turning once again, I remembered that there was no going back. All the negatives that have happened have happened and I can’t change that.

Eventually, years from now, my emotions may soften, but in the meantime, I’m just going to have to be okay with hovering for a few minutes.

And Suddenly, Another Freakout

Last week, I had a Pap smear. If you’re not familiar with what that is, you must be either male or blissfully young. In brief, it’s a test for cervical cancer, customarily done every 3-5 years.

I knew my results would come this week, along with other lab results. I was in a work meeting today when I noticed my phone was vibrating. It was my doctor’s office…and I was too late to answer the call.

Me: It’s probably nothing.
Also me: OMG I NEED TO CALL NOW!

The doctor’s office didn’t leave a message.

And that’s when I officially tuned out the meeting. A flood of possibilities came rushing in. My boss needed to talk to me but I was trying to suppress the growing urge to call the doctor’s office immediately.

The urge won. I called and left a message and went back to work, but my head was elsewhere.

The fact that there had been no message was extremely unsettling, because it made sense that if there were really bad news, the office would want to speak with me directly instead of leaving a voicemail.

And my reaction shouldn’t come as a surprise, because having been hit with a cancer diagnosis before, I’ve become hypervigilant. Like it or not, my brain wants to prepare for the worst so that I don’t have that horrible fall from thinking that everything’s just peachy to slamming into a nightmare.

It doesn’t help that I’ve read sooo many stories of women talking about being completely blindsighted by frightening diagnoses, and all of them saying that they thought nothing of the missed call from the doctor since they knew they were perfectly healthy, blah blah blah.

Gotta be prepared, ya know?

Of course, I know better than this. And at least I was aware of the hypervigilance, aware of my body’s reactions and aware that I was blowing things out of proportion. But it’s that uncertainty that is so difficult to take. Even though I know my response, I know why it happens and I know that chances are everything is ok…I want that certainty.

As it turned out, the call had come from the nurse assistant to let me know that my blood work results had come in. This was a relief, although I admit I considered it a defeat that I couldn’t be mindful and breathe through it all.

Then again, as a cancer survivor, I need to cut myself some slack. Getting slammed with a devastating diagnosis once leads to understandable echoes, no matter what test results I’m waiting for.

For now, I’m calm. Of course, my actual Pap smear results aren’t in yet. Those should come tomorrow or the next day. The nurse assistant told me that they’ll probably be normal (OMG, how can anyone say that????) and they’ll be loaded onto the patient portal…unless they’re not normal. And then they won’t be.

Guess whose heart will be fluttering for the next few days?

Not mine, because I’ve got it together.

Kind of…

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To be fair, I didn’t totally freak out over this. But scanxiety over test results is getting a little old, honestly…

Working Out the Brain Fog

So if you needed yet another reason to exercise before, during and after your breast cancer treatments, I’ve got one for you.

A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (Salerno et al., 2021) found that early stage (I-III) breast cancer patients who were meeting the US minimum physical activity guidelines both before and during their chemotherapy displayed better cognitive function then did those patients who did not, and the effects were apparent both at the time of chemo and also six months after its completion.

Cognitive impairment is a relatively common complaint of breast cancer survivors–and can be improved with exercise.

This follows along the lines of other things we already know about exercise and cancer, such as increased survival rates and reduced rates of recurrence. It’s not a big stretch to say that exercise (and for the purposes of this post, I’m referring to the US national guidelines) is possibly one of the best things you can do for yourself, whether you are already a cancer patient or don’t want to become one (again).

What are these guidelines?

It’s suggested that adults do (1) at least 150-300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity or 75-150 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or some combination of the two intensities, the more the better; and (2) strength training activity involving all the major muscle groups at least two days a week at moderate or greater intensity (see specifics at Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition).

Notably, similar guidelines hold across age groups and health conditions, with some modifications, although what exactly constitutes moderate to high intensity for different people will vary according to their conditioning and abilities. Take home message: If you can’t meet the guidelines, do what you can. It will still benefit you. The worst thing you can do is nothing.

The benefits of exercise for cancer survivors have been well-documented.

While there’s been a considerable amount of research done on the benefits of exercise as a whole, we’re only now beginning to focus on cancer patients and survivors as the test subjects. And new research is being conducted on different aspects of exercise to learn what effects they might have on cognition.

I’m going to be watching for the results of two clinical studies regarding exercise and cognition of cancer survivors. Both are currently recruiting participants.

The first, being conducted by the University of California, San Diego, is entitled “I Can! Improving Cognition After Cancer” and will be a randomized trial that examines whether physical activity improves cognitive function. You can read about it here: A randomized trial of physical activity for cognitive functioning in breast cancer survivors: Rationale and study design of I Can! Improving Cognition After Cancer, funded by the National Cancer Institute. Want to learn more? Go to https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04049695.

The second, conducted by the University of Pittsburgh and entitled, “Aerobic Exercise in Improving Cognitive Function in Patients with Stage 0-IIIA Breast Cancer”, will explore the effects of aerobic exercise specifically and will involve neuroimaging and the examination of pro-inflammatory biomarkers. You can read about it here: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/clinical-trials/search/v?id=NCT02793921&r=1. Again this is funded by the National Cancer Institute. Interested in learning more? Go to https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02793921.

If you’re not exercising yet, the important thing is not what physical activity to choose, it’s to make the decision to begin.

If you have any interest in participating in either of these studies, contact info for the research project is available above in the posted clinical trial links.

So you might be thinking, “I can barely deal with the diagnosis…and you want me to EXERCISE???” I promise you, physical movement will only make you feel better. However, if you don’t have an established exercise routine and don’t particularly enjoy the experience, consider what you can manage.

We’re not talking about training for a marathon or a powerlifting competition. But if you can do something, ANYTHING, you will still see greater improvements in your cognition–and quite frankly, many other aspects of your physical and mental state–than if you hadn’t done any activity at all.

It is worth it and you are worth it. So lace up your shoes and give it a go.

After My Last Oncologist Visit, I Fell Off A Cliff

I had an oncologist appointment last Thursday that marked four years of being done with chemo for breast cancer.

During my previous onc visit in February, I had been a mess: depressed, stressed and miserable with joint pain and a feeling that my endocrine therapy was taking away from me more than it was giving me. At that point, he let me stop the aromatase inhibitors.

Now, half a year later, I felt so different. My blood pressure was 118/83, much lower than the 130s and 140s systolic numbers I was hitting after stepping into the exam room on previous visits. I was peaceful and more hopeful.

We discussed all sorts of “survivor” things. The joint pain had mostly resolved itself and was no longer a hindrance to exercise, one of the things most important to me. My libido could have been higher and my short-term memory was often lacking, but he felt that could also be attributable to working and sleeping in the same room for the past year and a half, coupled with menopause.

Finally, my doctor noted that it was time for another chest MRI. Not the most comfortable of scans, but I’d done it once, I could do it again.

I would love a pet, even if it means having to clean fur out of my keyboard.

It was not until around noon of the next day that I suddenly plunged off a cliff. I was talking to my daughter and randomly mentioned my willingness to look after any pets she might have in the future when she’s living on her own, were she to travel for work, because where we lived now we weren’t allowed to have pets…

…and I was slammed by a massive wave of sadness and regret.

My thoughts zoomed back to my first chest MRI, stripped to the waist, lying on my belly, arms stretched over my head, frightened and painfully vulnerable. All my focus was on breast cancer and what other horrible realities the MRI would reveal. All I could think of was surviving my upcoming treatments.

That MRI meant that my life was on hold. There would be no progress in my career for the foreseeable future, and no chance of moving into a bigger place, one that would allow us to get a cat (note: I’m a dog person, but I would have been happy with a cat!). Animals have always been a part of my life, but our apartment rules prohibited them. I yearned for the chance to have a pet again. It seemed such a small thing to ask, but even that wasn’t available to us now.

That brief discussion with my daughter underscored a profound feeling of loss and despair. Cancer had robbed me of a lot of things in my life that others took for granted.

This was my view before I realized I didn’t have to sit there.

And as I sat there in the depths, I forgot that time does not stand still, things are always changing, nothing is permanent…and I have inside me everything I need to climb out.

Curiously enough, I had recently attended a talk on managing anxiety aimed at cancer patients and survivors. The counselor who presented the information was herself a breast cancer survivor and she told us a story of doing a follow-up chest MRI, which she found very stressful. Afterwards, she was asked by one of the cancer nurses what sorts of mental tools she had used while in the MRI tube to calm herself down. At that point, she realized that even though she taught these techniques to her patients on a daily basis, she had completely forgotten to use them herself!

I had been sitting in the darkness for a few minutes when I remembered her story. Most importantly, I remembered that I didn’t have to feel this way, that it served no practical purpose and that I wanted be happier. The only reason I felt like this was because these emotional plunges had been a habit of mine.

So I twisted a rope out of all those grounding techiques that I’ve posted about and pulled myself up.

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True, I still didn’t have a cat. But I was able to take a deep breath and realize that at least I had a future. And that future might contain a cat.

I Still Don’t Recognize “Myself”

You know how you have a picture of yourself in your mind’s eye? The way you imagine you look?

For four years, that self didn’t mesh with reality.

I still saw the long-haired fitness freak who’d never had a surgery in her life and definitely no serious illness. The one who was remarkably healthy at 50…the one whose co-worker assumed was age 35.

This is a perfect illustration of how I felt post-diagnosis.

That reality changed in an instant. The unbelievable happened, the unexplicable knocked me off my feet. There was no transition time. I went from super-healthy and super-fit to being diagnosed with one of the most dangerous diseases in our experience.

As the saying goes, “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” My health was everything to me, and suddenly I felt as though I had nothing.

And in the cruelty that is cancer treatment, off went the hair. Now there was no mistaking that I was “sick”. So when I bumped into friends who hadn’t heard about my diagnosis and tried to explain what had happened, they all said the same thing: “I know.”

Every time I walked past a mirror, I would get a shock. And this went on. Through the months of chemo, through radiation, waiting for regrowth that seemed to take forever.

My oncologist told me to be patient, the hair would come back. It was different for everyone. But I was still scared. And acceptance was a new concept that I was not comfortable with.

Yes, I felt I bounced back the year after chemo – working out hard, with the most awesome new-growth hair that random people would stop and compliment. That year, I felt strong and full of promise. I dared to say that cancer MIGHT have been the best thing to happen to me…

But as time went on, reality moved in again and I realized that there really was no going back. And that “lift” that I had gotten after my hair started growing back and I was hitting the gym hard, well, I crashed again.

Picking up the pieces has been a process…

Endocrine therapy pushed me through menopause. My hair thinned. And most devastatingly, I lost two friends who had been diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time that I had been.

I couldn’t celebrate that. And I fought it for months and months.

Four years later, I’m comfortable with calling myself a cancer survivor. But you know what? I still get a little jolt when I walk past the mirror. It’s still not the “me” that I expect to see. After several years of endocrine therapy, I do not look like I used to. My body doesn’t feel like it used to.

So I stopped beating myself up about it. I need more rest time between workouts. I get tired earlier in the evening. Yeah, I forget things. A lot. So I write more notes and declare my intentions out loud (“I’m going to have to take the next exit…”) so I remember what I’m doing.

I still don’t recognize “myself” in the mirror, but that is a previous “self” who was the right “self” for that time. The current “self” is wiser and more gentle with her body and her spirit.

And I do recognize her.

Kindness to Cancer Patients

REMINDER: Be nice to other cancer patients and survivors.

It feels weird to write that, because why wouldn’t you? So many of us who have had the cancer experience feel like we want to support and encourage those who come after us. We are driven to help. But that’s not always what happens.

Let me provide an analogy of sorts:

When I was pregnant with my first child, a daughter, I got an enthusiastic positive response from so many other moms. Everyone was ready with helpful tips and good wishes. At the same time, many also started in with stories of their own experiences, often times telling vividly about their struggles and pain and even, “Oh, girls are the absolute worst!”

Some experiences may leave us feeling “unfinished”, needing a kindred spirit to tell our story to. But we need to be aware of whose ear we’re bending.

Why would some women do this? I can only hazard a guess: perhaps because no one wants to listen to difficult stories. Childbirth is a momentous life event brimming with intense emotions that friends and family forget, but the mother in question holds on to because they are tied into so much of her. Her lingering feelings are brushed aside. No one else cares to revisit the labor pains or complications. As a result, tales of the experience are often not expressed until she sees another woman, a kindred spirit, embarking on the same journey.

So, too, with cancer. And it can be a difficult and awkward subject for many, cancer patients or not. Those of us who are breast cancer survivors may want to “talk about it”, and thankfully there are support groups for that. But friends and family may not understand the scope of the emotional fallout. We get comments like, “well, at least you got a nice set of boobs out of it,” and are expected to move on. Conversation over.

And then we see another woman going through this, and it’s difficult to resist inundating her with your own experiences and emotions, all in the name of letting her know that she can get through this, just like you did.

Does it help? Maaaaybe? But as we all know, everyone’s experience is different. What happens is that you’re not “preparing” her for what might come. You’re inducing anxiety in an already stressed-out situation.

I experienced this myself after my diagnosis, when, a week before my surgery, I ran into an aquaintance who had gone through breast cancer treatment several years before. And I know she was trying to offer support and make me feel better, but it didn’t. She made me anxious about my upcoming therapies, including ones that she not gone through herself. While my intent as a newbie was to share about my diagnosis because I felt that she would understand, I ended up being a sounding board for her concerns. Concerns that were valid, definitely, but not appropriate in the context of a very fearful cancer patient.

Offer support without taking over the conversation.

For the record, this was a lovely woman with whom I’ve had numerous subsequent exchanges. There was no ill-will intended. But it’s likely that she didn’t have many opportunities to speak to relate her story to other women, and given the chance, just needed to talk.

And I know that in my exhuberance to show support for other cancer patients, I’ve probably tripped over myself in an attempt to reassure too much. Offer too many hugs. While also trying to be noncommital about outcome. That’s a really messy combination.

So please, let us remember (and by “us” I mean myself!) that sometimes the best form of support for a newly diagnosed cancer patient is simply being there with them and holding space for what they may be going through. They will make their way through the experience, day by day, just like we did. There will be time to talk about the ups and downs of treatments.

But maybe not right now.

Is It Metastasis or Menopause?

Ever get the funny feeling that something’s wrong?

Like things are a bit “off” but you can’t be sure? I’ve been dealing with that ever since I got off letrozole, an endocrine therapy for breast cancer with a reputation for being difficult to take.

As of this posting, I’ve been off letrozole for 117 days exactly–yes, I’m counting. I’m still shaking off side effects like stupid-crazy joint stiffness, but at least I can tell things have improved.

That’s not what I’m talking about here.

I’ve taken a few rides in the MRI tube already. Not in any hurry to repeat that.

Right now I’m having some “really intense” memory and focus issues. I’ve put “really intense” in quotes, because I talk in superlatives so that my concerns are taken seriously. It’s a bad habit, especially when speaking to an oncologist, because it’s a sure way to end up in an MRI tube. Again.

In the past, my oncologist suggested that my memory problems might have been related to anxiety and not the medications I was on. That’s quite possible, although it’s hard to tease apart “anxiety” and “med side effects”. I mean, simply being told you have cancer causes an immediate spike of the Stress-O-Meter. For someone as anxiety-prone as me, it’s like I’m constantly red-lining.

Now I’m off the endocrine therapy and my memory and distractibility seem to have gotten even worse. What I had before wasn’t like THIS.

It’s kind of like saying, “This hurts. I think I’m being hit on the head with a hammer.” But then you actually get hit by a hammer, and think, “WHOA, now THIS is being hit on the head with a hammer!”

If thoughts are beads on a string, my beads are dropping off at a constant rate, leaving me wondering what I was about to do three seconds ago. And getting distracted by shiny objects. Couple that with having to learn a complex new financial system for work (grrrrr, Larry Ellison), not having helpful documentation to do so and having to go through that while being mainly confined to my bedroom for over a year…yeah, it’s a mess.

I am not being rational and I know it. But I’m still on high alert and dialing my fears down is going to take time.

Because my breast cancer was HER2+–which has been associated with metastases to the brain–my anxious little self immediately thinks, “Wait, maybe this is cancer’s spread stealing my thoughts???” I think that I will forever be jumping to that as the first possibility.

That’s not completely unreasonable, either. According to “Medical News Today”, memory problems are listed as one of the symptoms of brain metastases, along with headaches, stroke, seizures, confusion, dizziness…okay not really experiencing any of those.

And the Mayo Clinic metastasis website asks: what are the most likely causes of my symptoms? So, I admit, a brain tumor probably isn’t, given all the other more likely possibilities: menopause, work stress, loneliness, lack of purpose…and *cough* listening to Twitch video streams while I’m trying to focus.

So really, these memory issues could be a completely normal effect of menopause, but in the cancer context the possibilities are frightening. It takes a lot of perspective to be able to look at what’s going on and realize that it’s not aberrant or dangerous. I feel like an idiot for jumping to the worst conclusions, but here I am…

It’s a survivor thing.

Endocrine Therapy: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Looks like visiting a cardiologist after stopping aromatase inhibitors for breast cancer was a good idea after all.

The letrozole (aromatase inhibitor) that I’d been taking has been associated with cardiovascular effects, and since I was feeling progressively worse from the medication, I wanted to make sure that everything checked out okay.

With the improvement in surivorship comes an increase in the diseases that come about from cancer treatments. The longer people live, the more long-term effects take their toll.

It seems like the American Heart Association (AHA) agrees with my concerns. An April 26, 2021 statement by the AHA underscored the complicated picture of cancer treatments, in this case hormonal therapies for breast and prostate cancer. As stated in the article by Okwuosa et al. (2021) published in Circulation: Genomic and Precision Medicine, “As patients with hormone-dependent cancers continue to live longer, CVD [cardiovascular disease] has emerged as a leading cause of mortality and morbidity among survivors of these cancers.”

Ironically, breast and prostate cancers are some of the most common cancers in women and men, in addition to having some of the most effective treatments. The number is of breast and prostate cancer survivors is growing. Part of the success of treatment is expressly due to the development of hormonal therapies for long-term (5-10 year) use. At the same time, the increase in CVD problems is a result of this success, because as cancer survivors age they experience greater amounts of age-related cardiovascular events than do non-cancer surivors.

So, what do you do when the treatment that’s increasing your chances of beating cancer may also be increasing your chances of a cardiovascular event? Isn’t that one of the many problems with cancer? If your treatment works well, then that opens the door to having it work “too enthusiastically”, possibly with long-lasting negative effects.

It still comes down to healthy behaviors.

The AHA statement paper cited here stresses the importance of communicating with your oncological team about CVD risk factors and possibly requesting a referral to a cardiologist, having appropriate tests conducted (ECG/EKG, echocardiogram), and–in my opinion the most important thing the survivors themselves can do–modify lifestyle (diet, exercise, smoking cessation, etc.) to maximize your chances of a cardiovascular event-free survivorship.

While it may be frustrating to think of entering into an “out of the frying pan, into the fire” scenario with a potential leapfrog from cancer to CVD, nothing is written in stone. You can make an effort to protect yourself and avoid being a statistic. Focusing on healthy living will benefit you in many ways and is guaranteed to improve your life, no matter what your risks.

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Link to the AHA statement:
Okwuosa et al. (2021) Impact of Hormonal Therapies for Treatment of Hormone-Dependent Cancers (Breast and Prostate) on the Cardiovascular System: Effects and Modifications: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circ Genom Precis Med,
DOI: 10.1161/HCG.0000000000000082

Link to a reader-friendly version:
People Taking Hormonal Therapy for Breast Cancer Have Higher Risk of Heart Disease, Monitoring Recommended, https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/higher-risk-of-heart-disease-for-diagnosed-people-taking-hormonal-therapy

And Here We Go Again…

If there is a time that I’m going to feel anxiety, there’s a good chance it’ll be during my yearly mammogram. This year it came around the same time that my oncologist gave me permission to stop letrozole (and there was stress preceeding that appointment), but also great fear associated with my perceived cardiac arrhythmias, for which I have several visits with a cardiologist lined up.

Sometimes it feels like the stressors keep coming and coming.

To top that off, a family stressor followed on its heels, which I won’t go into but one that portends difficulties in the future. This last anxiety-provoking event used the previous stressors as a springboard and exploded into something even bigger. I was primed for anxiety and it took me for a ride until I found the traction to dig my heels in and slow down.

The worst part is, none of this stuff will simply go away.

Often, when people speak of anxiety-provoking events, they’re described as stressful things like a tense meeting with the boss or college finals or tight work deadlines. Admittedly these are all nerve-wracking, but they are also time-limited.

Then we have something like cancer.

I remember listening to a talk about anxiety where the lecturer tried to give the audience perspective about what was really going on, and he asked: what’s the worst thing that could happen? “You’re not going to die,” he assured us. And it’s true: let’s say that you fail all your final exams, but you’ll survive, even if you have to retake the classes.

Cancer survivors can attest to the fact that we suffer a different flavor of anxiety. There is no deadline on our stresses. They are thick and cling to us, like caramel sauce on the inside of a coffee cup, thinned by the passage of time, but leaving a film on our lives. Our hope is to get past the two-year mark, then five. Ten, if we’re so lucky.

Often, we hear about the success of treatments only to realize that the success is based on the majority of patients lasting until the end of the study, which might have been only five years.

Having someone tell you that you have a 95% chance of surviving five years is, well, underwhelming, especially for those of us who had premenopausal breast cancer. I mean, yeah, I HOPE I can last five years.

When you are here now, negativity fades to the background. Even if only for a little while.

So, what to do? If there were ever a time to practice non-attachment, this is it. For some of us (present company included), it is excruciatingly difficulty to release expectations–I want, even NEED, to be assured that everything will be okay and then rest easy with that.

But I promise you, clinging to the desire for things to be different only causes suffering. It also robs you of the joy of what you are experiencing right NOW–a beautiful sunrise, the softness of a pet’s fur, the richness of a cup of coffee, the coziness of a warm blanket. We are so wrapped up in fears of what the future holds that we miss the magic of what is before us.

Now is the only moment that exists, so truly, it’s the only moment that is real and certain.

Everything else is either history or what we concoct in our minds.

So this time of the year, I have to sit back and sense the Earth under my feet, feeling into how it supports me. This is what it feels like to be here now. No matter how many times I remind myself of this, I know I’ll have to do it again when the next stressor hits. That’s okay.

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This isn’t the first time I’ve written about anxiety and it certainly won’t be the last. But practicing mindfulness, every time I go through this experience, I reign in my emotions a little earlier and start feeling better a little faster. When I look back at what happened I realize I’m making progress, and that’s what really matters.

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!