Exercise Can Improve Breast Cancer Survivors’ Quality of Life

Two Women Walking Outside for Exercise

Exercise is not only safe and possible during and after breast cancer treatment, but it also can reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. Despite these benefits, a lot of women don't get any regular physical activity beyond their usual daily activities.

Studies of breast cancer survivors have shown that regular exercise significantly improves physical functioning and reduces fatigue. Certain kinds of exercise appear to help breast cancer survivors at high risk for arm, breast and chest swelling (lymphedema) avoid the condition. And some types of exercise can improve symptoms for those who already have it.

Physical activity has also been linked to a 24% decrease in breast cancer coming back, and a 34% decrease in breast cancer deaths. Always check with your doctor, however, before starting any exercise routine, to make sure it’s safe for you. While exercise is an important part of fitness, you need time to heal after surgery and should follow the advice of your health care team.

How exercise can help

Exercise can:

  • Improve balance
  • Strengthen muscles, or keep them from weakening
  • Lower the risk of heart disease
  • Lessen the risk bones will weaken
  • Lessen the risk of blood clots
  • Lessen dependence on others to perform daily tasks
  • Improve self-esteem and lower risk of anxiety and depression
  • Lessen nausea
  • Lessen fatigue
  • Help control weight – itself a risk factor for breast cancer recurrence

Questions to ask your doctor

Research has shown that patients are more likely to exercise if they have specific instruction to do so from their doctors. Patients and their caregivers should ask their doctors or medical team about the kind of exercise that’s right for them.

  • Ask if you have any risk factors or are taking any medications that could interfere with an exercise program.
  • Ask if it’s OK to drink extra fluids while exercising.
  • Ask if certain types of exercise are safer or better for you than others.
  • Ask if it’s safe for you to exercise above a moderate level of exertion (about as much effort as a brisk walk).
  • Ask if there are any warning signs you should look for while exercising, which would indicate you should stop.

Tips for exercising during cancer treatment

The goal of exercising during breast cancer treatment is to help maintain your endurance, strength, flexibility, and ability to do the things you need and want to do. Women who were used to exercising before they were diagnosed with breast cancer often have to reduce the amount and intensity of their program. Women who are new to exercise should start slowly and rest frequently.

  • Do some activity every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
  • Set up a daily routine that allows activity when you are feeling your best.
  • Try to include physical activity that uses large muscle groups (thighs, abdomen, chest, and back).
  • Try to include exercises that use resistance or light weights.
  • Try to include stretches, which increase your flexibility and maintain your range of motion.
  • Exercise moderately. This is not the time to push yourself too hard. Rest when you need to.
  • Unless you are told otherwise, eat a balanced diet that includes protein, and drink plenty of water.

Again, be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise routine.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.


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