Why Movement Is Key After Kidney Cancer Surgery

Become a copilot in your cancer recovery: Discover how moving is the new resting.

by Megan McMorris Health Writer

When you’re recouping from any big surgery, it can feel like you’ve just put your health into someone else’s hands. Nothing to do now but play the Waiting Game—and log some serious couch time—until you’re recovered, right? Not so. When it comes to kidney cancer surgery, you can play an important role in your recovery process by committing yourself to one goal: Moving more. “In the past 10 years, our field has progressed so that the majority of surgeries for kidney cancer are minimally invasive,” says Jorge Caso, M.D., an oncologic urologist at the Miami Cancer Institute. “This means that you can recover faster without much in the way of activity restrictions, and if you’re active early, you’ll almost invariably recover faster and easier than if you’re more cautious about moving.”

Wonder why that is? So did we! We put the question to the experts—who told us how moving more can help you recover faster, and ways to do it safely.

What Does Moving Do for You, Anyway?

We’re so glad you asked. Here are the top five ways experts say movement plays a beneficial role in kidney cancer surgery recovery:

  • It Boosts Your Breathing. Think about it: When you’re lying down, your body position encourages your breath to be shallower and your lungs lack stimulation to expand. Simply getting vertical and taking a walk keeps your respiratory system strong, which will decrease your risk of getting sick while your immune system recovers from surgery.

  • It Makes You Skip to the Loo. Your doctor’s post-surgery questions about your bowel movements aren’t just nosy. Getting your digestive system up and running is the first sign that your body is recovering. “One of the things that keeps patients in the hospital longer is waiting for their GI system to wake up, and there’s really nothing as effective for that as having a patient up and moving,” says Dr. Caso.

  • It Increases Your Circulation. If you had lymph nodes removed during surgery, you’re at risk of swelling (called lymphedema). Light exercise can reduce this risk by boosting your circulation and can also help prevent deep vein thrombosis, a serious condition caused by a blood clot in your leg.

  • It Helps Your Body Get Its Groove Back. Your body has been through a lot with surgery. Lying in bed as you recover my feel good, but it makes everything, from muscles to ligaments, stiffen up. Exercise helps your body move in the way it was meant to by restoring the natural biomechanics, easing that stiffness. Bonus: The more easily you can move, the less energy activities will require, which is important because your body needs to conserve as much energy as possible post-surgery, as fatigue is a side effect of many cancer treatments, says Sara Mansfield, a cancer exercise specialist at the Mayo Clinic’s Healthy Living Program in Rochester, Minnesota.

  • It Empowers You. You didn’t choose to have cancer, but you’re not just a passive passenger, either—being active can help you gain some control over the matters at hand. “We used to tell patients to rest after surgery, but when you do that, you’re taking them out of the equation in terms of helping themselves,” says Mansfield. “By showing patients how they can play a part in their own recovery, it makes them feel empowered.”

Rules of Engagement for Post-Surgery Movement

Given its potential perks, exercise is clearly something you want to incorporate in your post-kidney-cancer-surgery recovery plan. But exactly how you go about it matters—too much, too soon, and you risk injury or exhaustion. Not enough and you won’t stimulate your systems for maximum benefits. Follow the rules here to get the biggest bang for your proverbial recovery buck.

Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up. Between cancer treatment and surgery, the physical therapy piece of the puzzle can sometimes slip through the cracks. “Physical therapy isn’t always automatically a part of the care plan, which is why you need to be an advocate for yourself,” says Mansfield. “It helps your healthcare team to know this is important to you, so they can include activity into your recovery plan.”

Do Rate Your Energy Level. Any effective exercise program requires flexibility for days when you’re not feeling up to par. Giving yourself a daily rating between 1 and 5—both before and after exercise—can help you adjust your workout plans. Feeling like a 1 today? Rather than bag your workout altogether, commit to light stretching instead, and see how just a little can go a long way. “Assess your energy afterwards—it helps to remember how even light exercise made you feel better on a low-energy day,” says Mansfield.

Don’t Forget to Strengthen. While you shouldn’t lift anything above 10 pounds for the first four to six weeks post-surgery, there are other effective ways to strengthen your body as it recovers. “There’s always going to be a limitation on activities while you’re recovering, but you can still build strength in ways that don’t include weights or equipment,” says Mansfield. Modified bodyweight movements like push-ups against the counter or squatting into and out of a chair can help strengthen your body safely.

Do Get Creative. It isn’t one magic move per se that will speed your recovery but finding safe ways to stay in motion during the day that will support your cause. Take a cue from the “natural movement” craze—which includes rolling, crawling, and stepping over obstacles—to bring new options to your routine. “There are so many adults who simply never get on the floor, and it’s such a basic thing,” says Mansfield. “If you don’t do it, your body loses the ability over time.”

Don’t Overdo It. Play it safe and only increase one of these things per week: frequency, duration, or intensity of exercise. Don’t stress too much, though: The minimally invasive nature of most kidney cancer surgeries means that complications are rare. “Besides the restriction of heavy lifting, there’s typically not that much you can do to hurt yourself with normal activity,” says Dr. Caso. “It’s a major benefit to be active throughout your recovery, because the sooner you act like you’re recovered, the sooner you will be recovered.”

Meet Our Writer
Megan McMorris