Radiation therapy uses x-rays to destroy or injure cancer cells so they cannot multiply and continue to grow and spread. This type of treatment is often used alongside other treatments such as surgery or chemotherapy to help reduce the size of the cancer, destroy cancerous cells and minimise discomfort.
Radiation has the potential to cause different side-effects, depending on what part of the body is being targeted, age, other surgeries and health considerations. Radiation has the potential to cause skin tightness, burns and redness at the targeted side. Fatigue and anaemia (low red blood cell count) are other common side effects of radiation.
Research has found that regular exercise can help to prevent or minimise certain side-effects such as fatigue, anaemia, lack of appetite and sleep problems. We now understand that exercise has the potential to act as medicine to help individuals get through their cancer treatment, and should be prioritised where possible.
Exercise has the ability to increase energy levels, minimising fatigue during and following radiation. When we exercise, our body releases certain feel good hormones and neurotransmitters that give us our “up and go”, masking fatigue and helping us through our day. Exercise can also help to boost our mental health, providing more clarity, concentration, and improving overall mood.
As an adaptation to exercise and regular training, our body produces more red blood cells, lowering the risk for anaemia and chronic fatigue which can be a side-effect of radiation.
When we exercise, our body uses more energy than at rest. This may help to boost appetite, helping us to eat more in order to improve our digestive system, immune and recovery system and overall energy levels.
Despite the vast benefits of exercise, there are some consideration we need to be mindful of. Exercise Physiologist, Jesse explains.
GP / Oncologist Clearance: Before you start a new exercise regime, it is important you discuss this with your treating team, especially if you are at risk of fracture (bone cancer or osteoporosis), have lymphedema or other conditions such as heart disease. Depending on your situation, it is likely that exercise will be recommended due to the number of health benefits associated, however you may be directed to an Exercise Physiologist for a specific and appropriate exercise program. It is recommended you start a new program under the watchful eye of an Exercise Physiologist to ensure you are under the right care and completing a program specific to your needs.
Daily radiation routine: If you are starting a new exercise program during Radiation, it is important to be mindful of the daily requirements for you to get to hospital for your treatment. Consider how long this will take, and where exercise can consistently slot into your routine to create a long-lasting habit. Find a time in your day that suits your radiation schedule and side-effects. Some people may prefer to exercise before treatment, some at the end of the day. It doesn’t really matter, as long as you can find a consistent time of day so that a habit can be developed.
Compromised skin: During radiation and into the healing phase, the skin at the site of treatment may be compromised (burnt, tight or red). Not only will this potentially be sore, it may also increase risk of infection. During this time, try to avoid pools or exercises that may increase friction in that area. For example, if the skin along the side of the chest is compromised, a close grip row may rub and hurt.
You may be tired: During and after radiation, you may be struggling with fatigue, and that’s okay! It is still important that you find time to move, but it doesn’t have to be anything strenuous. Light movements such as Yoga, a walk or stretching may be just enough to give you a boost for the rest of the day. As fatigue subsides, consider increasing intensity to include more resistance and cardiovascular exercises.
No matter where you are at with radiation, exercise and physical activity should be considered as an additional form of treatment. Even a light stretch has the ability to help with common side-effects, as well as minimise further declines in health. Consider an Exercise Physiologist to help you get started and to prescribe a program that is suitable for you!