Staying fit, feeling good

Do daily exercises

After a mastectomy or if you have surgery to your armpit, your surgeon and physiotherapist will ask you to do regular exercises to help you recover. Your arm may feel stiff on the side where your breast was removed. Simple arm exercises can help to

  • give you back your full range of movement (also important for radiotherapy treatment)
  • relieve pain and stiffness
  • reduce swelling

After surgery, do the exercises until you have full movement back in your arm and shoulder. Ideally, you should do these twice a day.

To start with, the exercises are quite gentle. The aim is to get your arm and shoulder moving as it was before the surgery. You can begin each session by circling your shoulders, to get the muscles moving. Other early exercises are brushing or combing your hair, putting your arms behind your back and touching your shoulder with your hand. As you get stronger and more confident, you can do more of the exercises and gradually increase the range of movements.

Have a look at this excellent video:

Talk to your surgeon or physiotherapist if you have ongoing problems with arm or shoulder pain, stiffness or swelling.

If you have had breast reconstruction surgery the exercises you do are different and depend upon the type of reconstruction you have had. Check with your surgeon and physiotherapist!

Stay physically active

Tiredness and weakness is finally being recognised as one of the most common side effects from cancer treatment. It’s called: Cancer Related Fatigue. The reasons for it are multifold: the cancer itself drains your energy, the treatment is intense and often toxic, but also the lack of normal physical activity during treatment leads to loss of fitness.

It is encouraging that taking regular exercise can help to combat it. More and more research is showing that exercise during and after treatment is safe and helps recovery after cancer. Regular exercise can reduce stress and give you more energy.


But how much, and how often, and what exercise is suitable for me?

To be beneficial, exercise should be 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, of moderate intense activity such as walking, cycling or dancing. You should get warm and increase your heartbeat without getting out of breath. This level of activity is helpful for people even during treatment.


Everyone is different and exercise needs to be tailored to individual people, taking into account your diagnosis and treatment (weightlifting shortly after breast surgery), other problems (diabetes, cancer in the bones) and not least: what you love to do and feel is possible in terms of time, travel and costs! A physiotherapist or biokineticist can help you on your way.

Have a look at the pyramid and see what daily exercise you can easily incorporate in your life.


Exercise can also be helpful in a number of cancer related side effects:

  • neuropathy (pins and needles, problems with balance): aerobic exercise helps with the recovery of the damaged nerve ends by increasing blood flow.
  • osteoporosis (thinning of the bones): weight bearing exercise means running or rowing or anything where your bones are doing some work. This type of exercise may protect you against osteoporosis (thinning of the bones). Osteoporosis is a concern for many post menopausal women who have had hormone dependent cancers and so cannot take hormone replacement therapy.
  • depression/anxiety: many women with breast cancer battle with depression; regular exercise, possibly in a group, leads to less anxiety and need for medication.

Keep your pace

A very important advise to women fighting cancer is to listen to your body. But how can you do that, juggling a family, doctor’s appointments, medication, work obligations and loosing a breast at the same time?

This great advice was shared with us by the fabulous physiotherapist Liesbeth Raymakers


These are the things you can control

Over the past few days we have talked about some of the breast cancer risks that you can’t change:

  • Breast Cancer in Families & the Issue of Genetics
  • Being Born a Woman
  • Being Older
  • Race: “If you are a black South African women, however, statistics show that you may be at risk at an earlier age.

Today, let’s discuss the things that increase your risk of developing breast cancer — but that you can have a degree of control over.

Breast Cancer Lifestyle Risks

Firstly, your weight. If you are overweight, you increase your risk. This is because there is a link between fat cells and the production of the hormone, estrogen. Estrogen can make hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers develop and grow.

Interestingly, where you carry your extra weight matters. If you have a big tummy, you are more at risk than someone who has very curvaceous hips and thighs.

The second factor is something that you don’t always have too much control over, but we decided to include it here anyway. If you have a full term pregnancy before the age of 30, you reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. And if you are able to breastfeed, your risks reduce even further. Women who breastfeed for more than a year have an even lower risk.

The third factor is hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Many postmenopausal women took HRT for many years to help ease menopausal hot flashes, tiredness and to reduce bone loss. Since 2002, when research linked HRT to breast cancer, the number of women taking HRT has dropped dramatically. Not all doctors and gynaes agree with this, so be aware, ask questions and go with the answers that make the most sense for you.

There are two main types of HRT:

  • combination HRT contains the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
  • estrogen-only HRT contains only estrogen.

Each type of HRT seems to have a different effect on breast cancer risk. The combination HRT increases breast cancer risk by as much as 75%, even when used only for a short time. The estrogen only HRT is safer, only increasing the risk when it is used for more than 10 years.

By the way, it doesn’t matter if you use bioidentical or natural HRT or the synthetic versions – the risk is the same.

There are other lifestyle factors that put you at risk, such as smoking and alcohol consumption, the kind of food you eat and how much exercise you have. These put you at risk from other cancers as well as breast cancer.

Here is a great (free!) booklet which gives you advice about how to reduce your breast cancer risk.