Radiation therapy is given after surgery to reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back (recurrence). Radiation may cause side effects, mainly involving the skin of the area being treated. Radiation also may damage the heart muscle. Fatigue and anemia (low red blood cell count) can be other side effects of radiation, and exercise can help ease both of them.
When can you exercise?
During: Yes. Make sure you have your doctor’s OK to start. Explain the exercises you plan to do and ask about any possible limitations. Many studies have shown that exercise during radiation therapy can ease side effects, including fatigue, anemia (low red blood cell count), and sleeping problems.
It’s also a good idea to visit a physical therapist for a structural evaluation before you start exercising (if you didn’t do this after surgery). Make sure the physical therapist is experienced in diagnosing lymphedema. Besides looking for lymphedema, a physical therapist can check for any other issues unrelated to breast cancer that may limit your ability to exercise. Learn how to find a lymphedema therapist.
You may have a higher risk of contracting an infection while you’re getting radiation treatment. Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly after touching any shared equipment (barbells, dumbbells, treadmill, etc.). Also make sure you check your body, especially your hands and feet, for blisters or cuts and put antibiotic ointment on them. If your immune system is compromised and your white blood cell count is low (lower than 3,500 white blood cells per microliter of blood), avoid public gyms, yoga studios, and other public places until your white blood cell count is at a safe level.
You may want to skip swimming in a pool because chlorine may irritate the skin over the treatment area.
If you’re getting radiation to treat breast cancer that has spread to the bone, you may have a higher risk of breaking a bone. You may have to lower the intensity and duration of your workout. Talk to your doctor about the exercises you plan to do. You also may want to talk to a physical therapist or a certified trainer who has experience working with breast cancer survivors.
After: Yes. Again, make sure you tell your doctor the exercises you plan to do and ask about any possible limitations. You may want to avoid swimming pools if you have any skin irritation from the radiation treatment. Once that clears up, pools are fine.
Other Precautions: If you have any shortness of breath, pain, or tightness in your chest, stop exercising immediately. Tell your doctor what happened and work with him or her to develop a plan of movements that are right for you.
If you have any changes in your arm, hand, trunk, breast, or shoulder, including swelling, stop doing upper body exercises and see your doctor or lymphedema specialist. If you’ve been diagnosed with lymphedema after breast cancer treatment, there are precautions you should take before you exercise. These precautions include wearing a well-fitted compression garment or possibly wearing protective gloves. Learn more about exercise and lymphedema in the Lymphedema section.