Tips for exercise

• Choose forms of exercise that feel good to you and that you enjoy.

• Try for 30 minutes each day—or at least every second day.

• Adapt the program to your needs and abilities, especially during treatment. For example, you probably won’t be able to take up jogging during chemo—but you could walk or do simple stretching and breathing exercises.

• Include some aerobic exercise.

• Don’t underestimate the value of walking.

• Look into forms of exercise that help energy flow in the body, such as hatha yoga, t’ai chi, and qi gong. Find a teacher you feel comfortable with and who can design a program for your abilities and level of fitness, whatever they might be.

• Find friends to exercise with—it’s fun and helps you keep motivated.

• Find ways to include more physical activity in your daily routine. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park at the other end of the parking lot.


The Healer Within: Using Traditional Chinese Techniques To Release Your Body's Own Medicine *Movement *Massage *Meditation *Breathing
Roger Jahnke

Blended Medicine: Combining Mainstream and Alternative Therapies
Michael Castleman

Includes chapters on exercise, tai chi, yoga and massage.

Sandy Boucher, “Yoga for Cancer,” Yoga Journal, May/June 1999.

Walking: The Ultimate Exercise for Optimum Health
Andrew Weil and Mark Fenton


Nutritionist and cancer expert Dr. Patrick Quillin says, “Exercise is of one of the cheapest, easiest, most nontoxic and effective ways a woman can beat the odds on breast cancer. Walk, bike, stair step, do aerobics, horseback ride, rollerblade. Work with your healthcare professional to determine your abilities and limitations.”[1]

Dr. Linn Goldberg, author of Exercise for Prevention and Treatment of Illness and an expert on the use of exercise in healing, has said, “If the effects of exercise could be bottled, it would be the most widely prescribed medication.”[2]

Before my diagnosis of breast cancer, I had never been very interested in exercise. But when I read the statistics about cancer and exercise, I started to pay a lot more attention.

Studies show that physical activity or exercise can cut your overall cancer risk nearly in half. The greater the activity, the lower the risk, especially in colon and breast cancers.[3] Reading these statistics, I knew I had to reassess my lifestyle. I already knew that exercise helped prevent cardiovascular disease and many other conditions and that it promoted general good health. But I had not really thought about it in terms of the prevention of cancer. I realized that exercise is not just something that is nice to do for active people. It is simply part of what it takes to make it in the modern world.

From a physical perspective, there are many benefits. Regular moderate exercise for about thirty minutes per day or even every second day is known to help with cancer. It boosts your immune system and helps it to fight cancer. It helps normalize your body weight and get rid of excess fat, a known risk factor in breast cancer. Exercise gets the blood and lymph fluid circulating and helps the body get rid of toxins.[4] It lifts your spirits and helps with depression and anxiety.

Just as exercise clears the cobwebs in the mind and the body, it helps to clear them spiritually as well. From a spiritual perspective, exercise is a way to assist the flow of light in the body and to increase the body’s vitality. Taking care of your body with proper exercise is a way of honoring the indwelling Spirit.

Exercise and chemotherapy

What surprised me the most was how much exercise helped with the side effects of chemotherapy. During chemo I did not feel like exercising precisely because I was not feeling good. And with a lot of other things on my mind, it seemed that exercise was the last thing to be worried about. But when I pushed myself to do some physical activity, it really helped. It got me out of the chair and got the circulation going. Even in small amounts, it definitely helped with nausea, tiredness and lethargy. Other patients have told me the same thing.

Every other day, I walked in the park near the hospital for about an hour. A good walk can leave you with a combination of fatigue and invigoration, as well as an elevated mood. Within two weeks I noticed an even greater improvement in my energy level as well as greater flexibility.

During my six weeks of radiation therapy, a group of fellow patients got together for thirty minutes a day to do exercises that had been recommended by a physiotherapist at the hospital. Some of us also swam in the local pool for forty-five minutes each day. We laughed a lot, made it fun and pretended that we were really visiting a health club or spa rather than a hospital.

Healing waters

When I was at home, I continued the walks and the exercise regime. In the late afternoon and evening I often went swimming at Chico Hot Springs, a renowned resort only five minutes away from my home. I would soak in the hot pool and then swim a few laps in the larger, cooler pool. I would often listen to music or an inspirational or relaxing tape or read a book on healing. Sometimes I just pondered my own thoughts. At the beginning of the illness I did not feel like talking much to others, particularly if it involved explaining details about my illness. Later, I spent many happy hours chatting with friends while soaking in the warm, healing waters.

Sometimes I would visit Bozeman Hot Springs, about an hour’s drive from my home. This resort has a number of pools, from cold to very hot. I saw people going back and forth from one pool to the other, and I started to do the same. I began a routine of dipping myself in the hot and cold pools seven times each. After the initial shock I came to enjoy that ritual. (You can do a simple form of this in your shower every day by alternating hot and cold water.)

Stress and concerns about cancer would seem to melt away in the water. The hot water was refreshing, particularly after the breast and lymph-node surgery. (I waited until the doctor okayed me to go into a hot tub. I also initially avoided extreme heat on the right arm to avoid lymphedema after the lymph-node surgery.)

Apart from the general sense of relaxation and well-being that comes from soaking in hot water, there is also evidence that it can help directly to strengthen the immune system and fight cancer. Soaking in hot water has been shown to increase the activity of natural killer cells—an important part of the immune system in dealing with cancer.[5] And cancer cells seem to be more vulnerable to heat than normal, healthy cells.[6]


Another type of exercise that I tried during my cancer treatments was yoga, which I took up in a very simple form. I used what are known as restorative poses, with abdominal breathing and gentle relaxation and stretching exercises.

There are many kinds of yoga, and they typically include postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. Yoga is gaining popularity among cancer patients. It helps one to relax and control stress, gain mental clarity, and improve physical fitness and health. Beyond the mere physical benefits, there is also a spiritual side to yoga. The word yoga itself means “union,” and the ultimate aim is the union between the lower self and the divine, or the Higher Self.

After my third chemotherapy session (the most difficult for me) I found a local yoga instructor, Nancy Ruby, who was intuitive and knowledgeable. I explained that I was most interested in getting through chemotherapy. She listened to my needs and helped me understand what my body was telling me. She led me through a session based mostly on breathing exercises combined with visualization and simple postures for relaxation. Interestingly, a new copy of Yoga Journal had just arrived on her doorstep and it contained an article about yoga as a supportive therapy in cancer treatment. 

I felt that these simple techniques were one reason for the last chemotherapy session being the best of the four.

Breathing exercises

The staff at the hospital also stressed the benefits of breathing exercises, including deep breathing. I found just the act of breathing deeply and consciously could relax me during meditation or my spiritual practices or even while in the elevator on my way to the next blood test or sitting in a waiting room. It was simple and easy to do, and it didn’t cost anything.

Why does deep breathing make you feel energized? On the most obvious level, it increases the flow of oxygen in the blood. In the East, however, there is an understanding that beyond the physical effects, how we breathe can affect the flow of the life-force itself. This energy is known as prana—the Sanskrit word for “breath” or “breath of life.” The concept is similar to Chinese understanding of ch’i, the energy that circulates through the body on the acupuncture meridians.

This universal energy force moves through the body with each breath, revivifying the organs and their related systems. Prana is absorbed most easily from the air, and exercise and deep breathing therefore increase the flow of prana through the body. Yoga, T’ai Chi and similar forms of exercise are specifically intended to increase the flow of this energy, which is most concentrated in the spiritual centers along the spine. These centers take in prana and distribute it through the body. 

Those who practice healing methods of the East believe that sickness is the result of blocks or imbalances in the flow of this energy. Acupuncture and similar systems seek to remove blocks and balance this flow, with the understanding that when the proper flow of energy is restored, healing will occur.

I have found that deep breathing relaxes the body and brings about a healing state of calm, quietness and peace that can be tangibly felt. (And we have all experienced that a stuffy room is not conducive to good health.) The best source of health-giving prana is said to be “clean air near moving water, charged with sunlight.” I have certainly felt revitalized when standing near a fast-flowing waterfall not far from my home.

Another way of understanding this life-force is as the essence of the Holy Spirit that we take in through the breath. (“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”—Genesis 2:7)

Exercise is still a challenge—it does not come naturally to me as it does to others. One of the hardest things now is to get regular exercise and to remain motivated to do it. Like all worthwhile things in life, it takes some work. And I have realized that for me, it isn’t something that is optional. It is and essential ingredient for maintaining my health.


1. Patrick Quillin, “The Breast Cancer/Nutrition Connection,” Cancer Update, Summer 1999, p. 2.

2. Linn Goldberg and Diane L. Elliot, eds., Exercise for Prevention and Treatment of Illness (Philadelphia: F. A. Davis, 1994), p. vii. Quoted in Sala Horowitz, “Using the Body to Heal the Body,” Alternative & Complementary Therapies, June 1998.

3. Michael Murray et al., How to Prevent and Treat Cancer with Natural Medicine (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002), pp. 15, 113–15. 

4. Patrick Quillin, Beating Cancer with Nutrition (Tulsa, Okla.: Nutrition Times Press, 1998), pp. 20–21.

5. S. Blazickova, J. Rovensky, J. Koska, M. Vigas, “Effect of Hyperthermic Water Bath on Parameters of Cellular Immunity,” Int. J. Clin. Pharmacol. Res., 2000;20:41–46, quoted in Murray, How to Prevent and Treat Cancer with Natural Medicine, p. 199.

6. Quillin, Beating Cancer with Nutrition, p. 35.


Excerpted from A Journey through Cancer, by Neroli Duffy