Exercise critically important for both physical and mental health of cancer patients and survivors

October 27, 2021
Lana Kammer walking
Lana Kammer, an endometrial and breast cancer survivor, credits her daily walking routine for helping during cancer treatment. Photo provided

Lana Kammer, 46, laces up her shoes and slips on a jacket as the cool fall air settles over her Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Kammer, an endometrial and breast cancer survivor and MUSC Hollings Cancer Center patient, is about to begin her daily walking routine that she credits for helping during cancer treatment in more than one way.

“Exercising had such a positive impact on me both physically and mentally during my cancer battle,” Kammer said. “I tried to walk regularly before my diagnosis, but it became a part of my everyday life after it. Some days, I would walk one mile in the neighborhood, and other days, I would walk several miles.”

In addition to walking, Kammer picked up yoga classes virtually to remain active while undergoing treatment for stage 2 hormone-receptor positive, HER2-negative breast cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic. “There is already so much unknown when you are diagnosed with cancer. I also contended with living with cancer during a global pandemic. It was scary.”

Kammer said it was exercise that gave her the strength to push through the hard days and even improved memory problems, sometimes referred to as “chemo brain” or “chemo fog,” which are common during chemotherapy treatment. 

"This program is especially important for cancer survivors to help with motivation because we know starting to exercise can be the hardest part.”
— Tatiana Baier

new study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, who met the recommended exercise guidelines for adults of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week, had higher cognitive function than those patients who didn’t.

Janis Newton, director of the MUSC Wellness Center, said exercise for cancer patients and survivors has been proven beneficial in multiple studies.

“Physical activity can help with executive tasks and finishing tasks that can be a point of frustration for many of the cancer patients we see during and after treatment,” Newton said. “Things that used to be simple for cancer survivors, like multitasking, become challenging during and after treatment, which can cause a lot of anxiety. If nothing else, physical exercise can empower cancer survivors by reducing stress and anxiety.”

Newton said the mental toll a cancer diagnosis can take can be just as challenging as the physical toll. For some cancer patients, simply getting to the gym can be a major obstacle to overcome. “It can be difficult to start a healthy exercise routine without the proper training and resources,” she said. “That’s why we offer survivorship programs like Survivors’ Fit Club to teach survivors what activities to do, how to do them safely and the benefits those activities can have on their overall health.”

Tatiana Baier, program director at the MUSC Wellness Center, said it is important to tailor an exercise routine to each individual, which is why the staff offers numerous fitness and health programs, including a 10-week program called My Best Health Challenge, the latest of which began on Sept. 16. My Best Health Challenge is designed to increase physical activity while promoting skill building and providing professional guidance and accountability for developing healthy lifestyle habits. 

"I encourage other cancer patients and survivors to get outside and move around for at least 30 minutes a day. You’ll feel much better and more hopeful for life after cancer.”
— Lana Kammer

“All of the materials and daily motivation can be accessed through an app,” Baier said. “We are going to post lots of information and resources that we believe will benefit patients. This program is especially important for cancer survivors to help with motivation because we know starting to exercise can be the hardest part.”

Baier said cancer patients should seek guidance from their doctors about what activities they can and cannot do. She said Wellness Center staff also focus on strength training for cancer patients. “We use the patient’s body weight and additional weights, like dumbbells and machines. Building muscle helps the patient with general functions and helps to protect bone density, which can be affected by chemotherapy.”

Kammer’s cancer treatment at Hollings included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Through it all, she said physical activity helped her to maintain strength and a positive outlook. While her treatments ended over the summer, her walking routine continues. She now shares advice with other cancer patients.

“We are so fortunate to live in a beautiful area like Charleston. I encourage other cancer patients and survivors to get outside and move around for at least 30 minutes a day,” she said. “You’ll feel much better and more hopeful for life after cancer.”