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Exercise: How Can It Help During and After Cancer Treatment?

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Published on February 23, 2018

Exercise has proven to be a valuable tool in enhancing quality of life, preparing the body for physically demanding treatments and other personal endeavors, and simply making you feel good. What activities are especially beneficial for patients? Cathy Skinner, CEO and Founder of THRIVORS, uses her expertise in exercise and wellness for cancer to provide guidelines for physical activity routines tailored to meet an individual’s unique needs during and after treatment. Cathy gives workout recommendations for stress relief, rebuilding muscle mass, recovering balance and more. She also shares suggestions for easy and effective low-impact movements that patients can practice at home. Watch now to learn research-based exercise tips for every level of fitness and stage of your cancer journey.

Check out https://www.thrivors.com for more information.

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Transcript | Exercise: How Can It Help During and After Cancer Treatment?

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That's how you’ll get care that's most appropriate for you.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

Andrew Schorr:

Hello and welcome to Patient Power.  I'm Andrew Schorr.  Well, any of us who were diagnosed with cancer know that we should be active to the extent we can.  We know it's good for us.  We don't always know what to do.  So wouldn't it be great to have a coach?  Well, we're joined by a coach, and that is Cathy Skinner who joins us from Minnesota.  Thank you so much for joining us, Cathy. 

Cathy Skinner:

Well, Andrew, thanks.  It's great to be here. 

Andrew Schorr:

So, Cathy, you're the founder of thrivors.com and Thrivors.  What is Thrivors, and what is your devotion to cancer patients? 

Cathy Skinner:

So my devotion to cancer patients started with my dad's own diagnosis of multiple myeloma.  He was diagnosed 20 years ago, and that's how cancer impacted our family, and his diagnosis is what set me on my course to be involved in the cancer community.  And initially I started as a physical activity specialist.  I was the first cancer exercise specialist to be certified in the state of Minnesota and one of the first ones across the country.  And really understanding my dad's journey, understanding what it means to be diagnosed with cancer and how physical activity can make a difference is where I've been working for the last eight years. 

Andrew Schorr:

So that's thrivors.com, and you make speeches and appearances like this.  So, Cathy, we have thousands of people who watch this and really wonder if they're in treatment, what can they do?  If they have a condition like multiple myeloma, they may have skeletal issues they're worried about.  And then if they're out of treatment, they may say, well, I can't do what I used to.  Maybe I'll just forego everything.  So talk about their situations, in treatment where there may be limitations, after treatment where you're not your old you. 

Cathy Skinner:

Those are really good questions, Andrew, and I appreciate you asking them.  And I think what—the cancer patients I've worked with over the years, almost 400 men and women face to face, is they are my best teachers. And they've taught me that part of the cancer treatment when you're in treatment is to do as little as you—as much as you can with what you've got, the sense of finding control, empowerment, success can come in forms. 

And when I'm working with patients that are in the midst of treatment I recommend that they do a couple of things.  One is can they do a little bit of flexibility, a little bit of stretching of the calves, the hamstrings or the quads.  Can they stretch their shoulder or the chest, even through the head and neck, things that make them feel like their body can move a little bit to release some stress, some tension. 

Doctors are finally advocating movement during treatment.  For many years the recommendation was to do nothing, and so the good news is that the healthcare community is starting to see the value of physical activity, but they still don't really know what to recommend. 

So for someone who was physically active before, it's going to be a challenge to make sure that they don't overdo their activity, because they want so desperately to revisit that cycling or that swimming or that running, and those things might not be available.  But something at half-speed or at half the time might be more accessible. 

And when I'm working with cancer patients toward the end of treatment and into survivorship one of the chief issues, and you mention skeletal issues, is bone mass, muscle mass, balance around issues, issues around pain and fatigue.  And so one of the research-based protocols that we follow through Thrivors is specifically we're looking at rebuilding muscle mass.  So that means strength training.  That's exercising the biceps, the quads, the hamstrings, the glutes, the core. 

I think of a gentleman that we worked with named Larry, and Larry was a singer, and so for him it was important to strengthen his core muscles, so he could stand and perform and sing with volume.  And so physical activity and crunches or sit-ups, whatever you want to call them, directly linked to one of his values and the things that he wanted to get back to. 

Andrew Schorr:

So you talk about values.  So I guess it would be important to talk to who’s ever helping you, whether you use Thrivors, or you have a trainer or even the person you walk with to really get in touch with what's important to you.  So for Larry it was strength for singing.  For somebody else it may be getting on a bike again or being able to go for a longer walk.  And how do you get back to that, right?  So who do you want to be going forward post-cancer, right? 

Cathy Skinner:

Correct.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.

Cathy Skinner:

Yes, and I can think of a gentleman named Bob who actually has a second round of multiple myeloma, and he is on some pretty heavy chemo right now.  But his values and his priorities—and you're going to laugh and I hope Bob sees this—is that he wanted to be able to put his pants on one leg at a time, right?  He didn't want to have to sit down anymore.  So we worked on his balance.  We worked on his flexibility around his ankles and his knees and his hips, and he told me one of the best things he can do now is take a shower with confidence and not have such a fear of falling, because he would be at risk for something like that. 

Andrew Schorr:

And actually many cancer patients are older, like me, on Medicare, and we lose our balance as we get older, and we're subject to falls which could be a complication for any older person.  So balance and strengthening certain muscles is critical, but you don't have to run a marathon to do it, right? 

Cathy Skinner:

And in fact my—my hypothesis that's been proven over and over again is if we can build muscle mass, that correlates to balance, then that builds bone density and then people, their whole world can reopen to them.  So if someone did want to cycle or someone did want to swim or someone did want to do an extended hike, if they had the muscle mass and the endurance to support that effort, that really opens up the world. 

Andrew Schorr:

Let's talk of some specific tips.  So low impact exercises.  Are there some simple things we could be doing that you suggest?  And I know for years you were a collegiate volleyball coach…

Cathy Skinner:

Right, yes. 

Andrew Schorr:

…and so you had these really young, you know, energetic people.  Well, we're not that, but what would you suggest for us? 

Cathy Skinner:

So to correlate with my coaching I think one of the things that made me a successful coach is form and function—so looking at athletes and what was the most efficient motor pattern.  Were they stepping with the right foot?  Were they swinging with the right arm emotion, and if you know volleyball, you're going to get really excited about the things I just said.  But even if you don't know volleyball, thinking about form and function is how does a person move that's correct and in the right position, activating the right muscles. 

And that's one of the things on the Thrivors platform that I'm really excited about.  We have 40, over 40 exercise videos that illustrate through image and through voiceover how to move correctly.  What muscles should you be activating?  And so I think about if we're going to really focus on balance, then let's thing about what's happening from the belly button down, right? 

Can you activate your glutes, which is your backside?  Can you activate the muscles that are on the back side of your legs, which are your hamstrings, and they're stabilizing muscles?  Do you have range of motion in your ankle? 

So for example something simple to do that anyone can do at home even seated is the ABCs with their ankles.  So literally with your foot drawing an A, a B, a C, a D, and that's range of motion and flexibility in the ankle, which then can you do stuff with your calves, can you do stuff with your quads?  So things that are small that build on each other. 

And again it's a sense of empowering patients to feel like I've accomplished something.  I have an ounce of success in maybe a world right now where I don't feel like I have a lot of control or making a lot of progress in the direction I want to be going. 

Andrew Schorr:

So you mentioned at the outset about research that shows this is important, but yet while doctors are getting it, it's not really what they know how to instruct us in.  What is the scientific evidence now that this makes a difference for those which is affected by cancer? 

Cathy Skinner:

Another great question, and resources like PubMed are a fabulous for even just throwing in exercise and cancer and the literature is getting to be quite dense and quite robust.  So even going back to 2008 where a woman named Kathryn Schmitz did a study called the PAL trial looking at strength training for women with breast cancer and lymphedema that really turned the medical community on their head that strength training was not only valuable for mitigating or controlling lymphedema but also fabulous secondary outcomes around improving fatigue, improving energy, improving muscle mass. 

And so there's another study from Jeffrey Meyerhardt came out in 2008 looking at the impact of modest exercise, 30 minutes a day, five days a week, and was showing an impact on reduced risk of colorectal cancer.  So Michelle Holmes out of Harvard, there are so many good, qualified, validated research studies that are showing exercise, nutrition and also mindfulness are having a tremendous impact on cancer survivor outcomes. 

And even if it doesn't diminish the visible current life of someone who has cancer, an ongoing cancer, there's very strong evidence to show that doing something can make a person feel better even if it's for a small window of time, and the value really is owning that piece of your recovery. 

Andrew Schorr:

Well, in my own case I try to do something every day, something.  And it's not what I can't do, it's what I can do.  So whether it's running, I can't run nearly as far as a fast as I used to, but I work that in the mix.  Or ride a bike even to the store down the road when otherwise maybe I'd take the car.  And then today I'm going to the gym, and I know I always feel better when I walk out than what I walked in. 

Cathy Skinner:

Yes.

Andrew Schorr:

So I know it helps here.  Well, Cathy, I want to thank you for all you're doing with Thrivors.  I'll call that to people's attention, thrivors.com. 

Cathy Skinner:

O-r-s. 

Andrew Schorr:

Say that again? 

Cathy Skinner:

So it's Thrivors with an o-r-s. 

Andrew Schorr:

Right, t-h-r-i-v-o-r-s.com.  Take a look at that, folks, but no matter where you are, what you do, do something, and there are folks like Cathy who increasingly, fortunately, who can guide you on the simple things, the ABCs with your ankles or with your calves or other things that can help you get where you want to be, hopefully living longer and living better after the cancer diagnosis. 

Cathy Skinner from Minnesota, thank you so much for being with us on Patient Power. 

Cathy Skinner:

Yeah, thank you. 

Andrew Schorr:

All right.  I'm Andrew Schorr.  Remember, knowledge and maybe some exercise can be the best medicine of all. 

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

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