by Carol Michales
Exercise may be the furthest thing from your mind after a cancer diagnosis. Even if you have never been active, exercise can become one of your favorite activities. With more medical professionals recommending exercise to their patients, it is imperative for cancer survivors to learn how to exercise safely. First, ask your doctor before you start because each person is unique and heals differently.
A good exercise program will help to reduce the side effects of surgery and treatments. These side effects can include fatigue, neuropathy, decreased range of motion, weakness, lymphedema, balance issues, and a significant emotional toll. In this article, I will discuss the importance of adding balance exercises to your exercise plan.
Balance exercises will help you regain function and mobility for activities of daily living. Your balance can suffer after surgical procedures , especially with the TRAM flap procedure. A TRAM (transverse rectus abdominis myocutaneous) flap consists of skin, fat, rectus muscle, and blood vessels taken from the abdominal wall and transferred to the chest to reconstruct the breast. Because these muscles help with strength, posture, balance, and flexibility, TRAM flap surgery can weaken your body’s core. After a TRAM flap operation, you will need to learn how to compensate for this change of muscle placement through a series of exercises designed to strengthen the remaining muscles.
Balance exercises can counter some of the effects of muscle imbalances and body asymmetry after surgery. Some chemotherapy treatments can affect your balance and cause neuropathy. Neuropathy, which can make your feet numb, is a common side effect of chemotherapy. If you cannot feel your feet, it becomes difficult to maintain good balance. You should incorporate balance exercises as a regular part of your fitness routine to learn how to compensate.
Balance exercises can help prevent future injuries, such as falls. Balance training will help decrease the likeliness of falling. If you fall, it could limit your activities or make it difficult to live independently. Balance and strength exercises can help prevent falls by improving your ability to control and maintain your body’s position whether you are in motion or stationary. Cancer survivors are sometimes at higher risk for osteoporosis due to cancer medications. If you are nervous about falling, you might withdraw from your daily activities and have a lower quality of life.
Tips to improve balance and increase lower body strength
Start your balance exercise routine with the following exercises. You may want to hold a chair for support at the beginning. As you improve, you can try holding the chair with only one hand or even one finger. The goal is to eventually do these without holding the chair at all. For an added challenge, try these exercises with your eyes closed:
- Standing on one foot: Hold for 10 seconds then switch legs.
- Tightrope: Put your heel in front of your toe of the other foot as if walking a tightrope.
- Calf or heel raises: Stand in place and slowly raise each calf (or heel) up and down.
- Front, back, and side leg lifts or raises: Standing in place, lift your leg to the front, back, or side.
- Grapevines: Step sideways while crossing one foot in front of the other. On the next step, cross the foot in back of the other.
These exercises can help improve your core strength.
- Pelvic tilt: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Inhale and fill your torso with air. Exhale while pressing your abdominals downward, bringing your navel to your spine. Lower and repeat for 5 to 10 reps.
- Bridge: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Squeeze your glutes to lift your pelvis and ribs off the ground, leaving only your shoulders on the floor. Hold the bridge position for a few seconds, then lower and repeat. Complete 5 to 10 reps.
Carol Michaels is a Cancer Exercise Specialist and fitness consultant with more than 20 years of experience. She has worked with physicians and other health professionals to develop a cancer recovery fitness program that is currently offered at her studio, hospitals, cancer support organizations, and community centers. Carol received her degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and is certified by The Cancer Exercise Training Institute, American Council on Exercise, and the American College of Sports Medicine.