When facing a cancer diagnosis, staying in shape may not be the first thing on a person’s mind. But research shows that exercise can play a key role in reducing side effects like fatigue and weakness, and improving mental well-being.
Health professionals are responding to that research by developing programs specifically for cancer patients and survivors, to help them incorporate exercise into their lives in a safe and positive way.
Matt Schmitz is a cancer exercise specialist with the Cook Cancer Wellness Program at the Helen G. Nassif Community Cancer Center of Iowa, located in the PCI Medical Pavilion, 202 10th St. SE, Cedar Rapids. He works with patients who have been diagnosed with all types of cancer, but says that breast cancer is the most common diagnosis among his clients.
He spent some time earlier this fall talking about his field, the benefits of exercise in cancer treatment and recovery, and how family and friends can support a loved one who’s been diagnosed with cancer.
What does a cancer exercise specialist do?
I work with patients either one-on-one or in a small group setting. My role changes with each patient, diagnosis and treatment. More than anything else, I’m here to help with side effects that can be associated with treatment, like fatigue, loss of strength and range of motion, and weight gain or weight loss.
Why did you choose this specialty?
I’ve had family members that had cancer. But, also, it’s a need that continues to grow. There are more and more people diagnosed with cancer every year and more and more people surviving cancer. But treatment comes with short- and long-term side effects, and there are a lot of quality of life issues. This is a nice way to be able to help people. I wanted to help people with their quality of life.
When do you start working with clients?
Ideally, it would be at diagnosis, but there’s so much going on at that point, that that doesn’t always happen. It can be at diagnosis, it can be during treatment and it can be post-treatment — even years later. Our focus changes depending on where the person is.
If I meet with someone before treatment begins, I can evaluate range of motion and different areas of strength. From there we would get a baseline of what we need to work on. During treatment, we focus on maintaining strength and decreasing fatigue. Post-treatment, we are trying to regain any strength that was lost and work on any personal goals.
Why is exercise an important part of breast cancer treatment and recovery?
Exercise does a lot to take away some of the side effects. It helps with fatigue, it helps with loss of strength, but the most important thing that I see is that it empowers people. It is something that people can do for themselves and feel better immediately. They can say, “I’m still in control here. I can make myself feel better. I can feel stronger. I can feel better.” I see a lot of people who come in and say, “I’m not ready to exercise, I don’t feel good,” and when they leave they’re laughing and smiling. It changes their attitude. It’s good.
What issues do you encounter that are unique to breast cancer patients?
Every patient is different and every cancer is different, so everyone reacts differently. For breast cancer patients, the biggest thing usually is getting their range of motion back. If they had surgery, they may only be able to lift their arm to 90 degrees. They also have a natural reaction to protect their chest area by hunching over, and then there’s tightness and range of motion issues that can result in injury later on.
There also are social, mental and emotional effects … these are things we look for and can provide information about — we have a body image and sexuality class and a sex intimacy cancer group we can refer them to.
How can friends and family support a breast cancer patient/survivor in their wellness program?
The caregiver and family and friends play a huge role. They can be there to motivate, to say, “You’re still doing good, you’re doing this,” when that patient might not see it. Or, especially with the exercise, it can help to just ask, “How are you feeling? Do want to go to for a walk?” — that type of thing.
I love it when a family member or caregiver comes in with the cancer patient, so they can see what they’re doing and be here for moral support and to exercise with them. All support persons are welcome to take part in our services.
Cook Cancer Wellness Program services are available to cancer patients and survivors in the Cedar Rapids area, regardless of where they are receiving cancer treatment. Many support services, including the exercise program, are free. For more information, call (319) 369-7116 or visit www.stlukescr.org/cook-cancer-wellness-program.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 6, 2013 Surviving Breast Cancer special section.