Published on August 21, 2020
Why Should Blood Cancer Patients Exercise?
For people living with multiple myeloma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or another type of blood cancer, it may seem unwise to exercise when the body is undergoing cancer treatment. However, new research suggests with some certainty that the opposite is true.
As Harvard Medical School explains in an online article, “There are hundreds of studies showing real, tangible benefits of exercise for patients with a variety of different cancers and at different stages.” Physical activity, even in small doses, can help improve bone density, balance, and stamina throughout the day.
Exercise as a Part of Cancer Therapy
On August 10, I had the pleasure of attending “Exercise as a Part of Cancer Therapy,” an online discussion featuring experts in oncology, physical therapy, exercise physiology, sports medicine and health coaching. The event was hosted by Throwing Bones, a non-profit dedicated to educating and empowering individuals living with blood cancer.
For Kenny Capps, a multiple myeloma patient and founder of Throwing Bones, exercise as part of recovery came intuitively. As a long-distance runner and marathoner, exercising has been part of Kenny’s life for many years. In a recent interview with Patient Power, he discussed how he “found solace when he was finally cleared to lace up his running shoes, attack mountain roads on a bike or stretch out for a swim.”
Kenny’s own experience with cancer motivates him to help others keep moving forward.
To Exercise or Not to Exercise?
During the panel discussion, experts agreed that the most important step in starting a cancer fitness program is recognizing the need for one.
One way to evaluate this need is for the patient’s cancer team to assess performance status. The two ways of measuring this relate to the amount of daily activity and one’s independence in accomplishing that, and the amount of time one spends on one’s feet.
For example, if someone spends more than 50% of their day resting in bed, this would be a good example of a need to start the assessment for an exercise program. Other factors that should be assessed before starting a program like this include balance issues, sleep, the ability to self-advocate about their condition, anxiety, and depression.
Many of the people on the panel highlighted the fact that even a small amount of exercise has been proven to decrease the issues mentioned above. They encouraged people to find something that they enjoy doing and do it regularly. For people not well-versed in exercise, they suggested aerobics and resistance training to begin.
One of the main benefits of blood cancer patients exercising is the fact that it has been correlated to a better recovery. Kenny explained how exercise helped decrease his pain during recovery after a multiple myeloma diagnosis. Several of the panelists backed him up on this point and suggested that in addition to reducing pain, exercise also helps boost the immune system.
The experts also agreed that a patient should set realistic goals when starting an exercise program.
“You may only walk to the mailbox and back, but that’s a start,” Kenny said. “The next day, you may walk a little farther, and then around the block.” Small steps lead to big gains.
What Exercises Can Help Cancer Patients?
As a rule of thumb, any exercise that promotes balance, muscle coordination, and stamina building is great for patients recovering from the side effects of cancer. The panelists specifically highlighted two types of exercises that are perfect for this.
- First, yoga, as one of the oldest practiced fitness regimens in the world, integrates balance, breathing, and aspects of spirituality that all can have positive benefits to someone in their cancer journey. These benefits come in the form of reduction of stress and anxiety through meditation and the strengthening of the tissue surrounding the bones themselves, decreasing the likelihood of fracture.
- Second, Pilates is a newer form of exercise that integrates the principles of yoga into a more medically-oriented program. Designed by a fitness instructor who was affected by many debilitating diseases during his life, Joseph Pilates designed this fitness program with recovery in mind. Pilates helps bring blood flow to areas like the joints and increases endurance and coordination between different parts of the body.
Before beginning any exercise program, check with your healthcare team to make sure the exercise program you’re starting is safe and appropriate for you.
Financial Barriers to Exercise
Cancer patients may find certain drawbacks or barriers when exploring the benefits of exercise. Specifically, many of the panelists spoke at length about the fact that health insurance companies do not cover costs associated with exercise during and after cancer. However, using the argument that exercise is a form of preventative care, thus being imperative to one’s cancer recovery regimen, some patients appeal to their insurance company.
The experts suggested that it is very important for patients and care partners to advocate for the person in need of these treatments and not to be discouraged if on the first try you don’t succeed. Additionally, those with Medicare/Medicaid programs may be eligible to have a fitness plan catered to them through specific programs like Silver Sneakers.
If you have questions about getting help paying for an exercise program as part of your cancer care, talk to a social worker or patient navigator. For questions about your health and specific medical situation, talk to your doctor to get the care that’s right for you.
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