Exercise and secondary breast cancer

Many people diagnosed with secondary breast cancer enjoy being physically active. Regular exercise may help reduce side effects and improve quality of life.

Regular exercise may help to:

  • increase fitness, strength, stamina and flexibility
  • control weight (when combined with a healthy diet)
  • boost the immune system
  • reduce blood pressure
  • reduce fatigue, both during and after treatment.

People who exercise, even gently, during treatment may tolerate treatments better and have less pain, sickness, problems sleeping and fatigue. 

It is advisable for people with secondary breast cancer to take a little extra care when starting to exercise. Your specialist team or cancer information centre will have information about any appropriate local support to get active.

For more information order or download our Secondary breast cancer resource pack.

What is regular exercise?

Guidance suggests 'regular exercise' means 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least five days a week. That can be a lot initially, so before starting any exercise it’s important to discuss it with your specialist team. You can then begin gently and build up gradually. It doesn’t need to be 30 minutes all at once.

'Moderate intensity’ usually means you breathe harder, become warmer and are aware of your heart beating slightly faster than normal. However, you should be able to talk and it should not feel as if you’re pushing yourself too hard.

If you’re currently receiving treatment you may need to exercise at a slightly lower level. It’s important to listen to your body and stop straight away if it hurts or feels like you’re working too hard.

Exercise and secondary breast cancer in the bone

The most common effects of secondary breast cancer in the bone are bone weakening and fracture risk. Regular weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, is the best choice for strengthening bones. As your bones are at a greater risk of fracture you should avoid high-impact activities, such as contact sports.

Spinal cord compression is a rare but potential risk for people with secondary breast cancer in the bone that has spread to the spine. Spinal cord compression happens when a vertebrae (spinal bone) collapses and puts pressure on the spinal cord. To reduce your risk, try to avoid activities that involve twisting the spine or large forward bends of the spine.

Exercise and secondary breast cancer in the lung(s)

Breathlessness, coughing, pain, tiredness and loss of appetite can all be symptoms of secondary breast cancer in the lung(s). These symptoms are similar to those experienced by people with long-term respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. Research has found that when people with respiratory disease exercise regularly they are less breathless, have more stamina, are better able to perform everyday tasks and have a better quality of life.

There are a number of things you can do to avoid or reduce breathlessness.

  • Try to avoid exercising in very cold or dry conditions as this makes it more difficult for your lungs to expand. Swimming is ideal because the pool hall is usually quite warm and the air is damp.
  • Always start your exercise session with a gentle warm up to get your body, especially your lungs, ready to exercise and to slowly increase how hard you are breathing so your lungs have time to adjust to the new demands.
  • Walking can also be helpful. However, it’s best to choose to a route where you can take plenty of rest stops.
  • You could try 'pursed lip breathing’. This involves pursing your lips and breathing in and out through the narrowed opening. This reduces the air pressure, making it easier for your lungs to expand and contract.

Exercise and secondary breast cancer in the liver

Some people with secondary breast cancer in the liver have no symptoms while others have a combination of pain, feeling sick, loss of appetite, hiccups, tiredness and fatigue. While physical activity may help reduce some symptoms it is important to listen to your body and not push too hard. Gentle regular activity is often most effective.

Exercise and secondary breast cancer in the brain

Depending on where exactly it is, the symptoms of secondary breast cancer in the brain may include headaches, feeling sick, blurred vision, seizures, dizziness or balance problems. While these symptoms may not prevent you from exercising, it is important to choose suitable exercise to make sure you don’t put yourself at unnecessary risk of injury. For example, for people with balance problems an exercise bike may be better than cycling outdoors. If you suffer from seizures, always try to avoid exercising alone.

Exercise and anaemia

People who are anaemic often get tired easily and may become breathless when they exert themselves. If this happens, you may need to be a little more cautious when you begin exercising and build up gradually. There’s no particular type of exercise that offers any special benefit for people with anaemia as this type of breathlessness is due to your blood's reduced capacity to carry oxygen, rather than your ability to get air into your lungs.

Exercise and lymphoedema

Lymphoedema is swelling of the arm, hand or breast area caused by a build-up of lymph fluid in the surface tissues of the body.

Although you may already use your arm actively in your everyday life, you may want to restart or take up some regular exercise.

In the past it was thought that exercise could make lymphoedema worse but recent evidence shows that it will not worsen any symptoms you may already be experiencing and may improve them. However, if you’re considering starting or restarting exercise it’s a good idea to talk to your lymphoedema specialist about the type of exercise beforehand.

If you have been fitted with a lymphoedema sleeve, always wear it when you are exercising or when you are very active as long as it is comfortable to do so.

See our Living with lymphoedema after breast cancer booklet for more information.     

Last reviewed: November 2016
Next planned review begins 2017