by Catherine Lewan, PT, DPT, CYT, CPI
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and so for this month’s blog post, we’d like to talk about exercise and its role in cancer rehabilitation.

More people are surviving after a cancer diagnosis than ever before, with breast cancer survivors accounting for 2.4 million of the 10 million cancer survivors in the United States [1]. However, the very same treatments responsible for saving lives can lead to fatigue and physical limitations: approximately 80% of cancer patients experience at least one functional deficit as a result of cancer treatments. Today, we’ll discuss how yoga, and Pilates in particular, can be a therapeutic option for those dealing with cancer.
Research has shown that physical activity can be helpful in all stages of cancer rehabilitation, ranging from “pre-hab” to improve strength and endurance before a taxing procedure, to treatment for fatigue during cancer treatments, to restorative exercises to help you return to your previous levels of activity [2]. Conventional exercise regimens can be challenging for individuals who have undergone surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment. Because of this—and because dealing with cancer can cause significant stress and anxiety—mind-body exercise has become a popular choice among cancer survivors.
Here are the top reasons why I believe both patients and research have found yoga and Pilates to be helpful in cancer rehabilitation:
  1. Cancer affects both mind and body—addressing both at once is efficient! Research has shown that mind-body exercise can lead reduce stress and anxiety and improve sleep quality and general quality of life.
  2. For many of those who are dealing with cancer, fatigue makes it challenging to participate in conventional exercise programs. In contrast, one study found that breast cancer survivors reported immediate relief of fatigue with yoga practice [3].
  3. When all of your attention is focused on eliminating cancer, it can be easy to lose your sense of self. Yoga and Pilates are holistic and can help you connect to your whole self—rather than focusing solely on one aspect of the body.
  4. Yoga and Pilates use positive imagery to improve movement patterns. These images can be a welcome change from the worrisome thoughts and images that often accompany a cancer diagnosis.
  5. It’s as simple as showing up and breathing. On the toughest of days, you can still perform mind-body exercise by bringing awareness to your breath and the sensations in your body. Yoga and Pilates practice can be as simple as a gentle mindfulness, or as vigorous as an intense workout. Your practice can easily be modified to meet your needs throughout your journey to wellness.
Keep in mind that mind-body exercise is a tool that you can use in addition to conventional medical treatment—not as a replacement. Speak with your doctor before starting any new exercise program to make sure it can be performed safely in conjunction with your treatment plan.
And on a final note: the National Breast Cancer Foundation recommends that you perform self-exams at least once a month. Click here to learn how!
. 2. Brown J C, Winters-Stone K, Lee A, Schmitz K H. Cancer, Physical Activity, and Exercise. Compr Physiol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2014 August 5. Published in final edited form as: Compr Physiol. 2012 October; 2(4): 2775–2809.