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Exercise with breast cancer

June 12, 2019

Written by

Susan Gilchrist, M.D., M.S.

Photo of Susan Gilchrist standing on rocky mountain peak

What can I do regarding exercise? Can I exercise with lymphedema or with metastatic disease to the bone? I want to start a new program but not sure if it is safe? These are important questions that I am asked as an expert in exercise related to the care of cancer patients.

In modern day oncology practice, we now ask our patients to be more active and engage in guideline-based physical activity (150 minutes a week) and in some cases, resistance exercises 2 times a week. Missing in those general recommendations are the special issues related to surgery, lymphedema, and overall fatigue that impact a breast cancer patient. Moreover, patients start at different places. For some, it is hard to just get up and move…for others they want to run a marathon tomorrow!

Given this, below are a few tips to get you guys on your way:


One thing that is important to note. You will get through this – yes, having to see a specialist for concerns such as pain, lymphedema or affect limbs is not what you want to hear. I know you want to just forget this entire cancer thing and be on your way. I GET IT! However, the preparation and care you give to your body to get back on track is half the battle. I have taken care of scores of patients that have taken the time and effort to address these issues, and are now building positively toward their exercise goals and achieving them!

Lastly, I would say, not every breast cancer patient has limitations as above (or they have overcome them) but a new exercise routine is requested. In breast cancer patients following treatment, I usually figure out the patient’s current aerobic exercise time and volume and then build up by 10% every few weeks and adjust accordingly. I avoid recommending high-intensity workouts or heavy weight lifting right out of the gate to avoid subsequent injuries and or severe fatigue that lower motivation to continue. With this mind-set and a diligent patient, goals have been achieved in my practice (i.e. running half-marathon, participating in a triathlon, playing with grandchildren, going back to a place to walk and hike).

Hope this helps and stay tuned for more specifics and guidance on exercise routines!!

In the next post we’ll take a deep dive into some of the questions we’ve received.