Breast Cancer Survivors Need to Exercise at Their Own Pace

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • As much as I don’t really mind having had breast cancer, sometimes the long-lasting effects of that harrowing journey make me angry. I mean, I just plain get sick of them.

    For instance, aching shoulders from a mastectomy and reconstruction followed by NO physical therapy. I guess the doctors didn’t realize, six years ago, that lopping off my breast and cutting and wriggling and stitching one of my major abdominal muscles into its place might affect the way some of my other muscles worked. Attention, women undergoing a mastectomy, even if it’s not followed by any kind of reconstruction: insist on physical therapy after surgery. You want to get the range of motion in your shoulders back ASAP, so that they don’t ache later on.  

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    I’m taking Arimidex. (Fill in your own post-treatment drug of choice.) The side effects include loss of bone density (how much should I worry about fractures and osteoporosis?); joint and muscle aches (is that pain in my hip from the Arimidex, or…?); and rotator cuff problems (well, as long as my shoulders hurt anyway, let’s go for the whole nine yards!) Fill in your own side effects; if you’re taking tamoxifen, Femara, Aromasin, whatever pills you’re popping, you know what they do to you (besides scaring away cancer).

    And then there’s the lymphedema… lurking. How much exercise is too much? I know I’m supposed to use my arms in a normal manner; and I’m supposed to lift weights, because it wards off osteoporosis and it’s not bad for the lymphedema, unless you overdo it, and don’t give your muscles enough time to recover, which is… how long? Who knows? Lymphedema is still a rather murky side effect. There’s no known specific cause, and no cure.

    Thus, while bouncing around in a 6 a.m. exercise class today, I had a pity party: for about 15 minutes. “Oh, poor me…” The instructor, a lithe young thing in black spandex, was stepping, lunging, twisting, lifting weights over her head, all to the pounding beat of music that, even were I 30 years younger, I don’t think I’d welcome hearing at that hour of the morning.

    “How are we doing? Are we having fun yet?” she shouted over the heavy metal pouring from the boom box. Well, I don’t know about you, sister, I thought to myself, but this isn’t my idea of F-U-N. “Come on, you can do it! Eight more!” The muscles in her back rippled; mine begged me to be sensible and STOP. I plowed ahead, out of step as usual, in the back row, not willing to expose my weaknesses—too slow, too stiff—to the Jane Fonda clones around me. Feeling like a failure.

    And then I looked at my friend Dani, struggling alongside me. She’s had breast cancer twice; she’s had a mastectomy and two reconstructions (the first one went awry). She wasn’t keeping up any better than I was, but she didn’t seem unhappy about it. As we turned toward one another and nearly collided (one or the other of us turning left instead of right, as usual), she rolled her eyes and smiled. Like, “This is certainly an obnoxious thing to do at 6 in the morning, but so what?” The (rock) band played on.

  • When the hour mercifully ended, I started complaining to Dani about not being able to keep up, about looking like a fool. She told me, “I used to feel like that in high school. But I got over it long, LONG ago. Now I just do what I can do, and the heck with what anyone thinks. I just don’t care.”

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    She’s right, of course. What does it matter if I follow the (slower) beat of my own drummer? It’s still exercise, and exercise throws a protective shield around me—around all of us survivors—that cancer has to fight to get through.

    So the heck with being embarrassed, with feeling inadequate. I’m never going to be a healthy 35-year-old again—so what? And to tell you the truth, I’ll bet no one particularly notices or cares what we’re doing, Dani and I, moving at our own survivor speed there in the back row. We’re still alive and kicking—even if we’re out of step.

Published On: June 26, 2008