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From diagnosis to determination: regaining fitness after breast cancer - by Dr Maria Cayelli, MD

Maria Cayelli, a breast cancer survivor and author, empowers others through her blog, offering insights on self-acceptance and well-being post-cancer.

Dr. Maria Cayelli, MD, is Board Certified in Family Medicine and trained in Integrative Medicine. She's part of The After Cancer Care Team and she assists patients in exploring the best of modern medicine as well as evidence-based complementary therapies to empower them with individualized medicine.

Reimagining fitness after breast cancer diagnosis

I considered myself to be in good fitness health the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Well, certainly all that changed as I went through multiple biopsies and surgeries. It was a roller coaster of emotions waiting on final test results in addition to not being able to move parts of my body post operatively, and friends and family wanting to lift my spirits by feeding me awesome homemade southern comfort foods. So, when I was given the green light to get fit again, I had to rethink of how to achieve fitness.

The meaning of fitness can be tied to being healthy. And to be healthy means to be disease free. Well, that was my goal…I wanted to be cancer free. Another definition of fitness may be the ability to perform work or leisure activities without an issue. Again, I wanted to be able to work and play without limitations. I set out on my mission and researched how to get fit.

Changes in your fitness journey

No matter what level of fitness you have when you are diagnosed with cancer, your fitness level will change as you undergo further testing and treatment. First thing I learned is to listen to your doctors and ask what you can do and be specific about the activities. Your doctor may not want you lifting anything heavy or even raising your arms but this will change you recover. Start out with simple activities such as walking. Resistance training is a great way to regain strength and it does not increase your risk for lymphedema. If you have a favorite workout, definitely ask to be sure you don’t have any setbacks with your recovery. Your body goes through a lot of changes after surgeries and treatments so also listen to your body and be mindful of any aches and pains and don’t start out too hard. Your endurance will not be at the same level but will get there slowly. Be patient with yourself and your body’s current abilities. Your fitness level will improve with time and consistent effort.

The thought of going to the gym, taking a class, lifting weights, or going for a run or bike ride may be daunting. Pick one activity and start there. Although I had been training for a marathon prior to my diagnosis, I started with walking around inside my house and then progressed to walking in my yard. I did not even think about going anywhere because I got tired after just a few minutes. But slowly my endurance improved and my confidence in my body to hold up also improved.

The power of exercise for physical and mental well-being

Exercising not only helped my physical fatigue but also mental fatigue. This mind-body connection came to life because as I was able to do more physically, my mental game got stronger in handling the stressors of more doctor’s appointments, awaiting test results, and making hard decisions. During cancer treatment and even after your mood is affected. Being active has been shown to decrease depression and anxiety associated with cancer diagnosis. In addition, it may help decrease the side effects of some of your treatments. Working out may also help with sleep which we all know plays a key role in our overall health.

Being fit and cancer free means you have to eat healthy. But this can be difficult depending on your treatments and the side effects of medications you may be required to take. Again, talk with your doctors and ask what’s best to eat to strengthen your body or when you’re not feeling well. You need to fuel your body well in order to move it well. When you are exercising or moving your body regularly, you are more motivated to stay on plan with eating a healthy diet full of cancer fighting nutrients.

Once your doctor releases you to do certain activities, devise a fitness plan so that your body can be as strong as possible in your recovery process and beyond. Exercising (after breast cancer diagnosis) has been shown to be associated with longer survival. Seek a trainer who listens to you and understands your potential limitations and how to work around them. Taking care of your body to be fit as possible in turn make you as healthy as possible.

Here are the fitness guidelines according to the American Cancer Society:

  • Avoid inactivity

  • Take part in regular physical activity.

  • Start slowly and build up the amount of physical activity over time.

  • Build up to 150-300 minutes of moderate (or 75-150 minutes of vigorous intensity) activity each week.

  • Exercise several times a week for at least 10 minutes at a time.

  • Include resistance training exercises at least 2 days per week.

  • Do stretching exercises at least 2 days each week.


Dr. Cayelli provides video consultations on The After Cancer


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