Giving a Breast Cancer Survivor What Her Body Needs

Functional Fitness Training for a Breast Cancer Survivor


Laura is a busy professional, mother of a teenage son, and a breast cancer survivor. She had an active lifestyle—then she was faced with breast cancer and heart disease. After a mastectomy, a relapse, and another mastectomy with a latissimus flap breast reconstruction several years later, she knew she had to treat her body differently. Life was still just as busy, and her attempts to regain physical health needed support from a professional.

The mastectomies weakened Laura, but she also had knee pain that prevented her from quickly returning to her favorite exercises like jogging, yoga, dancing, and walking. Even after making great strides in her recovery, she felt a long way from her former active self.

Side effects of Laura’s breast cancer medication included elevated cholesterol, fatigue, anxiety, and insomnia. Her oncologist prescribed exercise and strongly recommended working with a trainer who—like me—was certified by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)

Laura wanted to work with a woman who understood her challenges and who would help her reach new, different, and realistic fitness goals. Just because vigorous exercise was not always in the cards didn’t mean Laura was failing when it came to achieving her fitness goals, and having the professional expertise to help her understand that was crucial.

Laura’s breast reconstruction surgery used muscle taken from her upper back, so she needed to target certain muscles with gentle stretches and reprogram the muscular systems affected. I introduced Laura to the foam roller for stretching, and it was an enormous help in loosening her tight muscle tissue, improving range of motion, and reducing stress. 

We set out to develop Laura’s core strength and stamina so that she could start running again. Building aerobic stamina meant walking up hills and keeping to a program of heart-rate-elevating exercises during her walks. Strength was also important in her daily life, but she risked swelling in the arms (lymphedema) if she used more than a 5lb. weight. She quickly learned proper, safe techniques for new exercises, but she had to remember to pace herself to avoid injury. I also taught her some simple core exercises she could do during brief breaks from her work.

New Physical Challenges & New Fitness Habits

There is no good alternative to developing (or regaining) your strength and stamina in a measured, methodical way—as Laura learned through trial and error. A burst of energy may encourage her to exercise at a level she remembers from years ago, but injuries, exhaustion, or feelings of defeat often followed. Wanting to do more in the body she has now helped Laura appreciate her body’s different needs. Learning that she can stay active by modifying her approach to exercise and knowing how to do it made all the difference.

These days Laura is thrilled to be exercising again and receives her new workout moves with enthusiasm. Feeling better in her body almost immediately was a huge motivator at the start, and continual improvements help keep her commitment on track. Even so, some weeks are better than others, and we meet each week to review her progress, learn from experience (usually about setting reasonable goals!), and plan for the next week.


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