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Moving forward in mind and body

Author: Mia James

being activeExercise might be one of the best things we can do to improve our health and quality of life, and being active can help us feel better, inside and out, even when our bodies and spirits are taxed by a cancer diagnosis. Patients and caregivers both find that physical activity keeps their bodies functioning well and their morale high in challenging times.

According to experts in both mind-body medicine and physical therapy at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, exercise can be a powerful contributor to both emotional and physical health. “Exercise is a healthy diversion from the worries we rehearse,” explains Rhonda Colley, MS, LPC, LMFT, a mind-body therapist at CTCA in Tulsa. Furthermore, exercise triggers a physiological response that can actually boost our mood. “As we exercise, often the nervous system is impacted in a positive way, reversing the body’s physical responses to stress. At a certain level of exercise, the brain can begin to release endorphins, a natural mood lifter,” Colley says.

Karen Gilbert, PT, national director of oncology rehabilitation, also based at CTCA in Tulsa, says that in addition to the emotional benefits of activity and obvious physical gains such as strength and weight maintenance, exercise can improve health at a fundamental level. “Exercise is one of those activities that has the benefit of increasing nutrition to all the organs of the body by increasing the pumping of the two pathways back to the heart: the circulatory system and the lymphatic system,” she explains.

A remedy for patient and caregiver

Sarah and Bruce Cooper of Andover, Kansas, have both relied on exercise for health and happiness during their respective cancer journeys. Within 10 years they each experienced both sides of the cancer spectrum— as patients and as caregivers. Bruce first served as caregiver for Sarah when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. By 2011 Sarah had transitioned from patient to caregiver, as Bruce had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

As the couple have approached cancer diagnoses and treatment from both the patient and caregiver angles, they’ve both turned to exercise to cope with the many ups and downs of the experiences. The Coopers have always led active lives, so it was natural to make exercise a priority during both cancer journeys. In fact, staying active helped them feel “normal,” as Sarah says. To this Bruce adds, “Since I have been active all my life, to continue with exercise was a way to be in a normal state.”

According to Gilbert, the Coopers’ decision to stay active during treatment was healthy on many levels. “Engaging in any activity that is part of your normal routine during treatment for cancer is another message to yourself that there is more to life than being a patient,” she explains.

For both of the Coopers, being a caregiver was more stressful than being a patient, so physical activity was an especially welcome coping strategy. “I was more overwhelmed with all of the details of treatment as a caregiver—much more so than as a patient,” Sarah explains, adding that in addition to being stressed and exhausted, she gained more weight while caring for Bruce than she ever had before. But by getting out and moving, Sarah was able to take care of herself and her husband.

“Exercise was a huge part of my daily routine, and it helped me get away from the 24/7 role of caring for Bruce,” she says. “Each morning before Bruce awoke, I ran or walked 5 to 6 miles.” Bruce and Sarah incorporated their favorite activities with some new forms of exercise to address the emotional and physical needs specific to their experiences mind-body connection as patients and caregivers. “I bicycled, race-walked, ran, and strength-trained as a patient,” Sarah says. “As a caregiver I did the same activities and added tai chi and racquetball.” She even stayed competitive after the diagnosis, including training for and completing a half marathon. Sarah then celebrated the conclusion of her treatment with a weeklong bike ride across Kansas.

Bruce says that he also maintained a full fitness schedule: “I bicycled, race-walked, and ran as a caregiver. By the time I was a patient, I had added weight-training, so I continued with that.” Fun and family time was another important aspect of exercise for Bruce during treatment; he kept weekly disc golf games with his son and nephew.

The Coopers maintained an ambitious schedule by any standard—let alone for two people confronting cancer from both the patient and caregiver sides. How did they find motivation during these physically and emotionally challenging times?

“I always felt better after I worked out,” says Sarah, even though the only “workout” she could manage on some days during treatment involved a “walk to the next park bench” before she needed to rest. “I needed the sun on my face and the sweat dripping down my forehead to feel that all would be well again,” she explains.

Every little bit counts

Though physical activity for Sarah and Bruce sometimes includes half marathons and long-distance bike rides, you can define exercise to meet your own needs and abilities. “We are not asking ourselves to do the impossible,” Gilbert says, explaining that any extra physical effort in our day is reason to be proud and will serve us well—mind and body.

The first rule for newcomers to exercise as well as for those returning to activity following treatment, according to Gilbert, is to consult your health care team. Your doctors, physical therapist, and others can help you determine which types of activities are appropriate for you and which ones you should avoid. For example, your doctor will need to evaluate whether your heart and lungs can tolerate the increased demands of exercise.

Gilbert encourages individuals who may not be as active as Sarah and Bruce to set appropriate goals, beginning with a simple increase in any activity. For example, “Are you always looking for a bed or chair during your waking hours?” she asks. If so, simply finding something to do that keeps you out of that chair for more than 50 percent of the day is a healthy start. And you don’t need a gym or special equipment; basic activities such as going out to get the mail, taking the stairs rather than an elevator, or parking farther from your destination and walking the remaining distance will add movement to your day.

Furthermore, physical activity need not be exhausting to be beneficial. Gilbert recommends a moderate level of exertion, which she describes as “somewhat hard, or around 65 percent of your maximum heart rate.” Other tips she gives for monitoring your activity level are to “stop when you feel like you could have done more” and to “never go past slight shortness of breath.” In other words, don’t wear yourself out entirely and do make sure that you can talk during activity.

Moving forward

Given a real love for an active lifestyle and the profound sense of health and wellbeing that Sarah and Bruce found in exercise during their cancer journeys, exercise will undoubtedly remain an important part of their lives—something that connects them to their strongest, healthiest, and happiest selves. “Exercise and being active is a huge part of my life, and I am so grateful to be able to participate,” Sarah explains.

Bruce agrees, saying that due to all the good he’s already enjoyed with an active lifestyle, “I want to continue to reap the benefits of exercise.”

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