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04 February 2022, 12pm

Maria Polyzou, marathon runner, coach and cancer survivor, relates her experience on the occasion of World Cancer Day (4 February).

Chemotherapy and exercise

by Maria Polyzou

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I needed to have 16 chemo and 32 radiation sessions after my breast cancer surgery in order to get my life back on track.

As a coach and long distance runner there was no way I could remove exercise from my life, even after being hospitalized. Most people advised me not to tire myself out, and to lie in bed until my next chemotherapy session, but I wouldn’t listen. My body needed exercise.

Just a day after my first chemo session I put on my trainers and went out for a run. I was curious to see how my performance would have been affected; would I feel exhausted and depleted afterwards?

After a 10km run I felt no exhaustion; on the contrary, I felt much relief. The pain and the discomfort I felt in my body had been alleviated. Even the nausea was almost completely gone. The headache and haziness I felt had almost disappeared too. My mood and psychology were at a high. I felt amazing!

That was how I handled this long period of chemotherapy. I have to say that the more active I was the less medication I needed to combat the pain and discomfort in the days following those chemo sessions. There were times when I even went for a short run just before treatments.

I believe that exercise complements the therapy we get at the hospital. It is no surprise that in the USA exercise is prescribed for women who suffer from cancer.

What will a woman gain from exercise when she is undergoing chemotherapy?

The benefits are many:

  • Exercise helps a woman cope with the harsh repercussions that chemotherapy has on her body.
  • It deters muscle degeneration and increases endurance during our daily routine.
  • It maintains our body weight.
  • It helps the body detox very fast through perspiration. This is very important because our liver suffers greatly from all the severe medication we take.
  • Another benefit of exercise is that it improves our digestive system; our intestines work better. Let’s not forget that one of the most frequent issues caused by chemotherapy is constipation.
  • The endorphins which are produced in our body during a workout benefit the overall psychological state of a woman fighting against cancer; it strengthens her. She is in a better mood and has a feeling of wellbeing. It diminishes depression – something which is often detected in women who have cancer.
  • Exercise decreases bloating; we feel this discomfort because of bad blood circulation. This almost disappears.

How much should I exercise?

Every woman should first consult her doctor and then contact a personal trainer who will help her find the ideal type of exercise. Every woman is a unique case and she alone knows her physical endurance.

We should never feel overexerted after a workout, but rejuvenated.

A workout could be a 30-40 minute run/walk or just a dynamic walk, cycling or a swim. Everything benefits us as long as the body is in motion.

I would recommend you exercise close to nature. There are many benefits..

I personally didn’t mind driving a few kilometres so that I could go for a run or a walk by the sea, on a mountain or in a lush green forest.

You will feel the benefits double! The fresh air and oxygen we get does us good and rejuvenates us.

Exercise helps to clear the familiar haziness that our brain suffers due to all the medication.

After any workout, a good session of stretching for the whole body is ideal.

It is of the utmost importance not to neglect to do strengthening exercises; your body needs them.

Women who have undergone lymphatic cleansing, like I have (I had 27 removed), should take extra caution; we need to be patient and persistent. Exercises should be mild. Our aim is to regain the ability to stretch out our arms. We should stretch our muscles without hurting ourselves or causing any pain. This is to be repeated persistently until it is accomplished. We do not want to feel pain in this area. What we need to feel is a slight pull which soothes us.

The rehabilitation of the muscles in the armpit may take a while but rest assured they will heal.

These exercises deal with the improvement of the complete movement of the shoulder, elbow, arms and wrist.

A rubber ball, which is squeezed and released repeatedly, is used to exercise the muscles in the hands and fingers.

How many times should I exercise in a week?

This depends on each woman. Personally, I exercised every single day because it did me good. I would suggest 3–4 times a week. On the days when you don’t work out you could do any other mild activity in the house, the garden or even dance.

One thing is certain though… You don’t give up.


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