Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tips for staying fit and healthy while undergoing chemotherapy

Chemotherapy was not easy.  In full disclosure, I had some really bad days.  I still do.  But I had many more good days.  My primary goal while undergoing chemo was to live life to its fullest.  My goal as a competitive athlete (who hopes to compete again),  was to maintain fitness and to stay healthy.  For me, the two goals were completely intertwined.  Now that I am over two months out from my final infusion, I can say with some certainty.....GOAL(s) MET!

Although I am certainly not an expert, and realize all women experience chemotherapy differently, I feel like I now have enough perspective on my experience to share my personal strategies for meeting my goal of staying fit and healthy while undergoing chemotherapy.

1.  Keep moving.  There is quite a bit of research that supports the importance of exercise during chemotherapy, however I don't think it is emphasized enough.  In my experience, exercise is the single most important way to feel better during chemotherapy.  Somedays it may be a short walk and/or stretching.  Others it may be a 2-hour mountain bike ride.  Doing something always felt better than doing nothing.

2.  Keep a log of how you feel each day over your first infusion cycle.  For example, Day 1 post infusion I had minimal fatigue.  This was a good day to take advantage of a nice mountain bike ride.  Days 2 & 3, I felt like dirt.  I would plan to take the dog for a walk to get outside and then stretch. That's it.  Day 4 through Day 7, I started to feel better physically each day, however I still only tolerated bland food.   Each proceeding day I would feel a bit better until my next infusion.  I would plan exercise and meals accordingly.

3.  Have simple goals and try not to compare yourself to pre-chemo performance.  I put away my heart rate monitor and bike computer.  My exercise goals became very simple.  To maintain conversation pace and to keep my rides under 2 hours.  In my opinion, a heart rate monitor is useless for monitoring zones during chemotherapy anyhow.  My zones most likely changed daily.  As for keeping my rides under two hours, I noticed that if I rode for more than two hours, I would feel fatigued instead of invigorated.

4.  Try not to set yourself up to feel bad about yourself.  No matter how much fitness you are able to maintain during chemotherapy, you simply are not going to feel as strong as you did before.  I tried to ride with people who were not out to do hard training rides, but content riding at conversation pace.  Pushing myself hard to keep up was not a goal of mine during this time, while being dropped hard was bad for my fragile self-esteem.  My husband was especially generous in that he would always let me stay a wheel length ahead.  No matter how slow I was going, this little trick helped me think I was strong.

5.  Eat healthy.  During chemotherapy I started experimenting with a mostly vegan diet.  A vegan diet is not for everyone, but eating healthy meals really does help improve energy and you need energy to exercise.  Eating healthy also helps prevent weight gain.  It is well documented that most women gain weight while undergoing treatment for breast cancer.  Through exercise and a healthy diet, I was able to maintain my weight throughout chemotherapy.

6.  Eat something.  I found that the first week post-infusion I only tolerated bland food such as toast or pasta marinara.  My options were to eat a less 'healthy' bland diet this week or not eat.  For me, eating was always better.

7.  Do what you love.  Obviously I love riding my bike, but I feel most alive and free when riding awesome singletrack.  Anticipating a fun ride made it really easy for me to get out and exercise even on bad days.  In fact, riding singletrack provides such an endorphin rush to me, that I would often forget, for just a moment, that I was undergoing chemotherapy.

8.  Take care of your body.  I did acupuncture throughout treatment and had some incredible cranio-sacral sessions at the Cancer Wellness House.   I really think these sessions helped me stay strong and healthy allowing me to exercise and maintain fitness.

Well....that's it.  Those are my main tips for staying fit, healthy, and for me, happy, while undergoing chemo.

Now, if I could only figure out how to stay happy (and not cranky) while following post-surgical precautions........


  1. Looks like a fairly good and accurate list to me! Eat healthy and exercise (when you can) are key.

  2. Jen, thanks for this blog. I keep coming back to it when I need a shot of inspiration.

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  4. Hello!
    I am so excited to have found your blog. I am a 33 year old teacher who has completed 2 Ironmen, 5 marathons, and countless other races but was just diagnosed with Invasive ductal carcinoma like you. I was having a very hard time with this for many reasons since I was training for my 3rd Ironman and now will not be able to compete in it due to surgery and treatment. I was petrified about what effect this would have on me, my husband, my family, and my athletic career. I needed to read about another athlete who went through this process. I needed to see that biking and running can be a part of my treatment plan. I thank you so much for helping me be optimistic about what is to come.

    1. Kelly, I am so glad you found my blog and that is has been helpful. That is exactly why I started it and have tried to document everything thoroughly. I could not find anything on athletes who had breast cancer (and returned to competition) when I was first diagnosed and like you I was really, really scared. I have since met quite a few rad athletes who have undergone treatment and are thriving, but I wanted to reach more people. Let me know if you ever want to talk more and good luck! Jen.

  5. i have a site i just started a listed you on there :)

  6. Love your post! I am half way thru my chemo treatments...and you are right on the money when it comes to staying active. It's helped me so much, before breast cancer I was a runner...I have completed over 20 half marathons and my weekends were my life because I would have my long runs. Now, I can't run so I walk a lot but I do what I can and I can't wait until I can do a full run again!!! You're post is very inspiring and I will continue to walk and look forward to running again!!!!

  7. I'm just starting my chemo treatments and was expecting too much of myself at first. I've realised I need to scale back and I've gotten a bike I can ride at home to keep active and although I can't do HIIT or other super intense fitness things I loved to do it feels good to do something active:) It's so nice to hear that people can come out the other side and be well. Thanks :)

  8. What a great tip about not comparing your abilities to what you were capable of beforehand! My sister-in-law is just finishing up with chemotherapy and she has been frustrated with her inability to reach the same level of physical activity she could achieve before. Her bout with cancer has taken a lot out of her, and sometimes I think she manifests the emotional toll it had with outbursts over small, meaningless things. Her lowered capacity for exercise is one of those things. Hopefully I can convince her to look towards the future instead of the past. http://www.karpcancercare.com

  9. Thanks so much for this....I just started my Folfox chemo on Friday.... 1 down, 11 to go.

  10. Thanks so much for a brilliant blog. This is so helpful for us Having lots of practical tips in one place is really useful.

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