Exercise is Medicine: Breast Cancer

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October is breast cancer awareness month. There has been a growing awareness about breast cancer over the last couple years.October is breast cancer awareness month Breast cancer is quite prevalent in Canada with 1 in 9 women being diagnosed at some point in their lifetime. An estimated 25000 women and 220 men were diagnosed in 2015. Exercise and maintaining a balanced lifestyle can help reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. We now know that there can be a genetic component which increases breast cancer risk, specifically the BRCA genes. Remember when Angelina Jolie had her prophylactic double mastectomy a few years ago? She had done genetic testing which showed an increased risk for breast cancer. Lifestyle also plays a huge part in lowering your risk of developing breast cancer. It is estimated that in North America, 17% of breast cancer cases could be prevented if we were able to maintain healthier body weights. Regular physical activity can lower your risk of breast cancer by 25%.

Exercise isn’t just beneficial to prevent breast cancer, it can also play a crucial role in helping all cancer survivors cope with treatment side effects after a diagnosis. Physical activity guidelines for cancer survivors are the same as the general population. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, 2 strength training sessions, and regular stretching. Some exercises may be better than other depending on what type of treatment you are receiving, the surgeries you’ve had, and any other side effects you are experiencing. Remember to talk to your health care team before starting an exercise program.

Some of the main side effects experienced with breast cancer treatment are fatigue, changes in body composition, and changes in

Click on the image to view an infographic
Click on the image to view an infographic

general mood. The good news? Physical activity can help with all of these!


Cancer-related fatigue is one of the most common side effects experienced by cancer survivors. It can be very debilitating but exercise can help reduce fatigue. It may seem counter intuitive but a moderate level of aerobic exercise (for example, a brisk walk) can help you to reduce fatigue. Think about when you’re feeling a little drowsy after spending a long time at your desk. Going for a quick walk can leave you feeling refreshed, same idea here. There is a point of diminishing returns where too much exercise will leave you feeling even more fatigued than you were before so start slowly.

Body Composition

A lot of the breast cancer treatments affect your body composition, including increased body weight, decreased muscle mass, and reduced bone density. This can make it even harder to get back to your regular routine after treatment has been completed. Regularly being active can help to manage body weight and maintain muscle mass. Men and women all reach peak bone mineral density in our mid-20s and then we slowly lose bone mass as we age. Women are already at an increased risk for osteoporosis so weight bearing exercises, such as walking, jogging, or lifting weights, can help maintain bone mineral density.

Overall Mood

A cancer diagnosis can be very overwhelming and lead to a lot of stress, and anxiety and depression. Exercise can improve quality of life and reduce anxiety and depression – just 5 minutes of movement can lead to feeling better. Studies have shown that regular exercise can be just as effective as medication in combating anxiety and depression when maintained. Take some time to notice how you mood or stress levels change after your next exercise session.

Risk of Recurrence

There is some evidence that staying active after breast cancer can help reduce your risk of recurrence. Researchers are still trying to determine how much exercise and what type of exercise is needed.

How to Get Started

Keep in mind that you might not be able to do the same level of physical activity or exercise as you could before treatment. Your body is going through a lot and that’s okay! Take it day by day and listen to your body – something is better than nothing.

Resources in Calgary

  • Wellspring: The Wellspring community offers a number of programs to support cancer survivors through their cancer journey. Wellspring just opened a new facility in south Calgary.
  • Thrive Centre: a free exercise facility for cancer survivors and their supporters. The Thrive Centre is located at the University of Calgary.
  • Tom Baker Cancer Centre: TBCC has a number of resources and services for cancer survivors including free access to dietitians and psychologists, a cancer resource library, and other informational programs.


  • Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation
  • American College of Sports Medicine
  • American Psychological Association

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