Exercise and cancer: safe and game changing

Research shows exercise can help cancer survivors tolerate counteract cancer-related fatigue


These pages will look at the role exercise can play in cancer therapy and later recovery. I’ll talk about the different types of physical activity and how these can help you deal with the side effects of treatment. I’ll also discuss safe and effective ways you can introduce exercise into your routine to enhance your health, boost your energy levels and improve your quality of life.


“It was truly amazing to do some exercise under professional and very understanding guidance. It was definitely a game changer for me in the period of the chaotic return to post-cancer life.”  (Client testimony) 


There’s no doubt that dealing with the long-term effects of cancer and its associated treatments can be a tough challenge. Many cancer survivors talk about the fear of cancer recurring, the all-consuming fatigue, a lack of strength and stamina that stops them from doing anything too physical, and unwelcome weight gain after treatment.

Some people also comment on the sense of loss they feel because they are unable to participate in the active lifestyle they had prior to diagnosis and treatment.

New thinking on exercise and cancer

When I was a registered nurse, admittedly a few years ago now, it was rare to see the words “cancer” and “exercise” appearing on the same page, never mind in the same sentence.

Back then, the message to people living with the side effects of cancer and cancer treatment was to put your feet up, have a cup of tea and take a break from physical activity. The thinking behind this was that exercise would make the effects of fatigue worse by placing an extra burden on a body that had endured intensive treatment. Rest would help individuals to repair and recover.

What many health professionals didn’t appreciate (and according to the cancer charity Macmillan it’s apparent that some still don’t) were the effects of the downward spiral of deconditioning.

Put simply, when someone stops undertaking physical activity they lose lean body mass (muscle) and become progressively weaker. At the same time they gain body fat and their heart and lungs become less healthy. This makes it even more difficult for them to keep active and over time can lead to severe and/or chronic fatigue.

As the cycle of inactivity continues individuals are likely to develop many of the longer-term health problems associated with a lack of activity, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease.

Find out more:

Read about the benefits of physical activity

Look at these tips on starting exercise after cancer

Four types of exercise to do if you are living with cancer

Find out when you should take care with exercise


Exercise and cancer: the magic pill

Just as it is now increasingly common for doctors to recommend regular physical activity as an important part of a person’s overall health, there has been a major turnaround in medical thinking regarding the physical and psychological benefits of exercise in cancer therapy.

In May 2018, the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA) launched its position statement on the role of exercise alongside surgery, chemotherapy and radiation in cancer care.

According to COSA, “All people with cancer should avoid inactivity and return to normal daily activities as soon as possible following diagnosis (ie, be as physically active as current abilities and conditions allow).”

Writing in the online publication The Conversation, lead author Professor Prue Cormie said, “We are at the stage where the science is telling us that withholding exercise from cancer patients can be harmful. Research shows exercise can help cancer patients tolerate aggressive treatments, minimise the physical declines caused by cancer, counteract cancer-related fatigue, relieve mental distress and improve quality of life.”

Professor Cormie made international headlines when she added, “If the effects of exercise could be encapsulated in a pill, it would be prescribed to every cancer patient worldwide and viewed as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment.”

The Australian position resonates with the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) Nutrition and physical activity guidelines for cancer survivors.

These guidelines state, “Existing evidence strongly suggests that exercise is not only safe and feasible during cancer treatment, but that it can also improve physical functioning, fatigue and multiple aspects of quality of life.