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How Can Exercise Impact My Life With Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women in Australia with an average of 48 people diagnosed every day. Despite the increasing number of cases diagnosed, the number of deaths is decreasing with over 90% five-year survival rate. The breast cancer is characterised by the abnormal and uncontrollable growth of cells in the lining of breast lobules or ducts even when the stimuli that initiated the growth has been removed.

What puts you at greater risk of developing breast cancer?

Risk factors include family history, previous diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ or cancer, long term hormone replacement therapy, age, gender, physical inactivity and poor diet, alcohol consumption and smoking. Diagnosis is usually done through screening mammogram or physical examination by the doctor. Most common symptoms include a lump, changes in the breast size and shape, and swelling, persistent pain that is usually in one breast only. If diagnosed, the treatment process commences with the following treatment options: radiotherapy, surgery, and chemotherapy and hormone therapy. All these can be categorised into the following:

  • Systemic: treatment drugs that spread through the bloodstream to target the cancer cells wherever they may be. These include hormone therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted drug therapy. These have greater side- effects compared to local treatment.
  • Local: the treatment focusing and targeting a specific area of the body such as breast and skin. Examples of local therapy include radiotherapy and surgery which have lesser side effects.

What are the most common side-effects of treatment?

As a result of treatment, depending on the type used, the most common side-effect is cancer-related fatigue. It has a significant impact on physical and mental well-being and health where often causes the vicious cycle of physical inactivity and subsequent increase in sedentary behaviour. This then leads to an increase in visceral adipose tissue, increased fatigue, reduced interaction with friends and family, depression, loss of muscle mass and strength, and bone mineral density. Collectively, this all leads to decreased health-related quality of life and loss of independence.

Another side-effect that is commonly mistaken to be preventing individuals to exercise is breast cancer-related lymphedema which is a build-up of fluid, mainly in hands and arms.

Why is exercise important and how can it impact my life?

Before undertaking exercise, consider the risk of fractures if treated with hormonal therapy and diagnosis of osteoporosis as well as shoulder morbidities that need to be addressed. With all factors being taken into considerations for, the benefits of undertaking supervised strength and aerobic exercise according to research are:

  • Structured exercise is preferred due to higher supervision, therefore, greater motivation and accountability.
  • Exercise has a beneficial effect on psychosocial factors by decreasing anxiety and depression
  • During and after completion of cancer treatment, the exercise affects decreasing cancer-related fatigue compared to individuals that did not exercise
  • Combined training protocol has a mildly protective effect on women at high risk of lymphedema.
  • Combined exercise, especially strength training, have positive effects on metabolism, increase muscle mass and strength, social interaction, self-esteem, fatigue, balance, joint mobility and stability, depression and most importantly the quality of life and independence. 
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