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Working with the New Normal for Cancer Survivors

Posted on March 6, 2018 at 10:10 AM

Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Special notice: This information should not be used as medical advice. It is for informational purposes only. Please consult your physician or health care provider before making any changes to your diet or beginning an exercise plan.

Recently, I though about some great clients I helped a few years ago. I was privileged to work with some amazing cancer survivors by helping them regain their strength and endurance; they were just trying to find some sense of normal for themselves. Some were cancer survivors with Team Survivor, a wonderful program that helped women who survived cancer regain the physical abilities they lost. They wanted their bodies back and who could blame them. Nasty cancer! Their bodies were forever changed. Maybe you are the cancer survivor reading this. Maybe you are a friend or family member of someone who has battled cancer. Either way, you are reading this because women who have beaten cancer need understanding when it comes to trying to build back strength, stamina, and daily living function. It will be a long road to finding that new normal on your journey to total health.

Why So Many Changes?

One of the first solutions to beating cancer is often surgery. The tumor(s), when feasible, are removed surgically. Then the body has to heal before chemo or radiation can begin. Scar tissue builds up at the surgical site often fusing muscle and skin layers. Some adhesions are broken up to aid movement while ome are not able to be broken up, so movement becomes limited (NIH). My first husband had several surgeries in his abdominal area. He massaged some of the areas where scars could cause problems, but scar tissue built up spaghetti-like threads interwoven through the intestines and other internal organs. Turning at the torso was very limited and painful. His abdominal work was limited to compression. Other people may have a limited reach due to breast tissue removal. Some breast cancer survivors had lymphedema resulting from surgery as well. The swelling often caused problems with daily activities. These changes may be permanent requiring careful consideration as you become more physically active.

Treatments often leave long-lasting changes behind. Chemo-fog causes short-term memory problems. One Team Survivor woman I trained need me to repeat the instructions for exercises every time, so I did and I often typed out her workouts with complete instructions so she could also do them on her own in between appointments. Learning how to manage the effects of memory problems is important for your continued improvement.

Another change is that many cancer survivors complain about is weight gain. According to oncologists who treated my husband, they wanted their patients to gain some weight. Chemotherapy drugs are stored in fat cells. The patient’s treatment continues even after infusion is done. Unfortunately, many people struggle to get back to their pre-chemo weight (Cleveland Clinic). One of the Team Survivor clients I worked with wanted so badly to lose the 50-60 pounds she gained after uterine cancer treatments. This can take a longer time than for someone who never had cancer because the body adapts to the treatments. A lifelong plan of dietary changes and exercise will help you live a more normal healthy life.

A third issue that crops up is difficulty managing pain and fatigue. Notice how it affects your daily physical performance. There will be noticeable patterns. What are they? Make note of them when you meet with a dietician, physical therapist, or personal trainer who understand the distinct needs of cancer survivors. If finances are tight, which usually happens due to medical co-pays and deductibles, then look for financial assistance to help with these costs. It is important for your daily function and resilience in the face of treatment to have dietary and physical improvement help.

The fourth issue is limited range of movement. Breast cancer survivors may have trouble reaching over head or lifting objects of 5 lbs. or more. Survivors who have had abdominal surgeries may be very rigid in the core with a pot belly that won’t go away. A number of limitations of movement may crop up in your recovery time. Find out what they are and why to convey to your physical therapist or personal trainer.

Beginning a healthy lifestyle even while still being ill is different for every cancer survivor. You probably don’t feel healthy after all the treatments and lingering effects, but there is a new normal to be found. What will eventually change and what will continue makes a difference in how you continue with daily life. Your "What Now?" questions will begin to find their answers.

Moving on When Treatment Ends:

1. Decide what your new normal is for the time being. Write down what your high points and low points are during the interim between treatments. As you discover your “Is” for now, make a plan how you will move forward with your life. It may be hard to accept some of these changes, so talking with your pastor or a clinical counselor may be necessary for your emotional health.

2.Get instructions from your oncologist and/or surgeon for exercise and dietary guidelines. Building up to live as normally as possible will be important as your schedule and strength improve. For example, a breast cancer survivor may have trouble using a vacuum sweeper, but will be able to so easier with personal training or physical therapy. Or energy levels may increase with minor dietary changes, so going to the park with children becomes easier. Be sure these professionals understand you want help with daily activities that are difficult for you.

3. If you experience chemo-fog, write down instructions for lifestyle changes where you can easily read them. One of my clients needed the instructions for her exercises repeated every session due to memory problems, so I repeated them and demonstrated her exercises for her every session. Sometimes, she would stop me in the gym to ask questions about her exercise routine. Professionals should be compassionate with you about your needs.

Beginning a new healthy lifestyle

It may seem crazy to think of yourself as "healthy", but you will find a new healthy point for your Now. Helpful tips when beginning exercise and healthy eating:

1. Plan your exercise days when you will normally have the most energy and least pain. Make sure you have rest time factored in the days of your exercise.

2. Work on your posture to make exercise more effective. It is easy to slouch when you are tired or don't feel well, but good posture is essential to proper movement patterns because it reduces pain and potential damage.

3. Practice full breathing when you are sitting down. This will be difficult for lung cancer survivors, so follow your doctor’s recommendations. Inhale by allowing lungs to expand outward. Then squeeze the air out slowly with your belly and ribs.

4. Use gentle range of motion exercises to reduce stiffness. Slowly and gently move working toward greater range of movement, especially areas of the body that are stiff and achy.

5. Be aware of your body’s movement in your daily activities in light of the exercises you perform in your workouts. Ostomy bags can cause movement limitations because you don’t want the bag to come loose or tear your skin.

6. Wear exercise clothing that is comfortable, supportive, and attractive to you. For example, some mastectomy swimsuits look terrible, but there are some really nice ones if you take your time looking. Make sure they come up on the chest higher and are fitted to keep the prosthesis from floating up and out of your suit. Rashguard tops cover your arms, chest and neck well. If you have surgical scars that are embarrassing, look for exercise clothing that is comfortable, breathable, and covers what you want covered. There are also blousy exercise tops that are attractive for women with ostomy bags.

7. Know the side effects and interactions of your medications. For example, if you are on blood thinners, watch out for vegetables that contain high amounts of vitamin K. You want your medications to do their job and eat healthy, nutritious low calorie foods.

8. Put your insurance dollars to work for you. Some pay for gym memberships for you. Find out who participates and what those limits are. They may pay for a dietician or physical therapy, prosthetics, etc. You will have to dig around in your insurance policy information or call to ask about benefits.

9.Find support. Your pastor or a licensed clinical counselor can help you find support groups for cancer survivors that will help lift you up rather than commiserate.

10. God has a marvelous plan for your life right where you are as you are. As odd as this sounds, cancer never took God by surprise like it did for you and your family. He didn't give you this disease, but He did allow it for a purpose (Colossians 1:23-25). Just look at the book of Job (Job 2,42). He can be glorified through your illness and your victories offering a new life to you (2 Corintiahs 4:17, Psalm 31:6-8). 

Here are some resources to find help:

Exercise and diet:

Team Survivor for women who have survived cancer. This is the Northwest chapter, but they may be able to help you located a chapter near you or to start one in your area. Also, a personal trainer I know in the Pittsburgh area may be able to help you find or start a group in your area Training with Sue helps cancer patients become stronger and healthier

The American Cancer Society  Also, don’t forget there are resources listed at the American Cancer Society to help you with various needs like finances, transportation, and other important needs. Look in the bottom navigation bar for Support and Services.

Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Patients:

Other resources:

Belt to hold ostomy bags in place during exercise:

Stealth belt

Cancer Be Glammed (There are other products you may find helpful).

Masectomy bras, etc.

Liberator Medical


Land’s End

Swim Outlet

This blog post has my own experiences working with cancer survivors as well as the resources listed below.

National Institute of Health

Mayo Clinic

Chemo Care

Cancer Research UK

Categories: special health conditions, exercise, health

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1 Comment

Reply ★ Owner
11:38 AM on March 6, 2018 
Are you a cancer survivor? How about writing a 5-year plan for your new life? What do you want to do?