Colorectal Cancer and Exercise: What's the Connection?

A nice long run, a high-inten­si­ty kick­box­ing class, a strength train­ing chal­lenge with friends — for many peo­ple, there’s noth­ing like a good work­out to get pumped up and ener­gized for the day. But even for an exer­cise fanat­ic, there are times when phys­i­cal activ­i­ty does not sound so appeal­ing. One of those times may be when you are under­go­ing treat­ment for col­orec­tal can­cer. When can­cer or treat­ment are leav­ing you fatigued or feel­ing down, it can be dif­fi­cult to moti­vate your­self to get up and exer­cise. While it’s impor­tant to lis­ten to your body and get plen­ty of rest, it’s just as crit­i­cal to stay phys­i­cal­ly active. This might not be the time to start train­ing for a marathon or hit­ting the gym every sin­gle day, but it is a time to pri­or­i­tize get­ting mov­ing in a safe, healthy way. 

Here’s why your body will thank you for stay­ing active while you’re being treat­ed for col­orec­tal cancer. 

Exer­cise can slow down the pro­gres­sion of col­orec­tal cancer. 

Exer­cise isn’t a cure for can­cer, but it’s still an impor­tant part of treat­ment. Research from a 2019 study shows that it’s espe­cial­ly ben­e­fi­cial for peo­ple with lat­er-stage colon can­cer. The study found that being phys­i­cal­ly active may be able to slow down the pro­gres­sion of col­orec­tal can­cer.

The study also found that peo­ple who exer­cise for at least half an hour every day may be able to bet­ter tol­er­ate the harsh effects of chemother­a­py. Remem­ber that since exer­cise is not a cure, you still need to keep up with your pre­scribed treat­ment plan. 

Phys­i­cal activ­i­ty can sim­ply make you feel better. 

Between treat­ment, the phys­i­cal effects of can­cer, and the emo­tion­al toll it takes, can­cer can eas­i­ly dimin­ish your qual­i­ty of life. How­ev­er, exer­cise is one of many ways to lim­it the effects. Exer­cise can help decrease anx­i­ety and depres­sion, which are com­mon men­tal health con­cerns among peo­ple with can­cer. It can also reduce the phys­i­cal side effects of cer­tain treat­ments, such as fatigue and nau­sea. Pair­ing exer­cise with healthy eat­ing habits can go even fur­ther in improv­ing qual­i­ty of life, as well as help­ing with your phys­i­cal and social func­tion­ing after treat­ment. 

To learn more about exer­cise and treat­ments for col­orec­tal can­cer, sched­ule an appoint­ment with a Duly Health and Care oncol­o­gist.

Stay­ing active can boost your immune system. 

Dur­ing can­cer treat­ment, it’s more impor­tant than ever to keep the rest of your health in check. Can­cer treat­ments can wreak hav­oc on your immune sys­tem, mak­ing it hard­er for your body to fight off infec­tions or ill­ness. Addi­tion­al­ly, oth­er med­ica­tions you may be tak­ing for con­di­tions like heart dis­ease or dia­betes can inter­fere with can­cer treat­ments — and vice ver­sa. For exam­ple, uncon­trolled dia­betes can lead to more severe side effects from treat­ment or increase your like­li­hood of get­ting a treat­ment-relat­ed infec­tion. At the same time, cer­tain can­cer treat­ments can bring your blood sug­ar lev­els up or down, or wors­en oth­er health prob­lems that you already have due to your dia­betes. Exer­cise is key because it helps your body use blood sug­ar, main­tain your heart and lung health, and man­age your weight. It also reduces your risk of devel­op­ing con­di­tions like heart dis­ease or dia­betes in the first place. 

Keep­ing up with phys­i­cal activ­i­ty could stop your can­cer from com­ing back. 

Stop­ping can­cer treat­ment doesn’t mean that it’s time to stop exer­cis­ing. In fact, you might want to pay even more atten­tion to your phys­i­cal activ­i­ty — it has been shown to delay or reduce your like­li­hood of col­orec­tal can­cer com­ing back (recur­ring). Phys­i­cal activ­i­ty can also decrease your risk of devel­op­ing oth­er types of can­cers. Exer­cise is one of your body’s nat­ur­al defens­es against dis­ease. When you exer­cise, your body can reg­u­late some of the hor­mones that could con­tribute to can­cer and that keep your immune sys­tem in shape. This can then low­er your risk for devel­op­ing cer­tain types of can­cer, includ­ing colon, breast, prostate, endome­tri­al, and poten­tial­ly also pancreatic. 

Make sure you’re stay­ing safe. 

Exer­cise can be safe if you have col­orec­tal can­cer — but you might need to take cer­tain pre­cau­tions or make adjust­ments to your usu­al rou­tine. If you are being treat­ed for col­orec­tal can­cer, you may want to avoid:

  • Heavy weight training 
  • Using pub­lic gym equip­ment to avoid germs when you have a low white blood cell count (low white blood cell count could indi­cate that your immune sys­tem isn’t at its peak, so it may not be as good at fight­ing off infection) 
  • Vig­or­ous, high-inten­si­ty exer­cise if your red blood cell count is low 
  • Swim­ming in pub­lic pools or hot tubs, lakes, or rivers, espe­cial­ly if you have a feed­ing tube or catheter 
  • Over­do­ing it — you may need to start with just a few min­utes each day and build up 
  • Activ­i­ties that put a lot of stress on your bones if your can­cer has spread to your bones or caused osteo­poro­sis

Talk to your provider about which exer­cis­es are safest and most effec­tive, and if there is any­thing you should avoid while being treated. 

Don’t be too hard on yourself. 

Whether it’s from treat­ment or from the dis­ease itself, you might not be able to exer­cise the same way you did before your diag­no­sis. Cer­tain exer­cis­es might be more dif­fi­cult or you may get tired more eas­i­ly. You might also need to take more breaks or days off than you used to. That’s per­fect­ly nor­mal — and it’s noth­ing to beat your­self up about. Going through can­cer treat­ment can be over­whelm­ing, and you deserve to give your­self a much-need­ed break. 

Lis­ten to your body. If exer­cise is mak­ing you dizzy, have short­ness of breath or chest pain, or seems to make you feel worse rather than bet­ter, these are signs to slow down. 

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  • My goal is to provide quality, evidence-based cancer care in a compassionate manner. I strive to help my patients achieve cure when possible, comfort when not, and quality of life always. I believe in giving my patients all their options and working with them to come up with the best treatment plan for them individually.