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Big Benefits to Exercise During Your Thyroid Cancer Recovery

Don’t let the side effects of treatment for thyroid cancer stop you from being active while you are undergoing radiation or after surgery; physical activity will help you stay positive and bounce back faster.

With Andrea Leonard, CPT, ACE 

Andrea Leonard comes by her passion to help others who receive a diagnosis of cancer learn to keep active and to approach your work out safely and appropriately following her own journey with a diagnosis of thyroid cancer.

Thirty-five years ago, she was learning to deal with the physical and emotional struggles of having thyroid cancer as a high school senior, and then to stand by her mother through three bouts of breast cancer treatment. Both she and her mother used exercise as a method to help them stay positive psychologically and physically during and after their treatments.

A personal trainer will assure that you exercise safely while recovering from thyroid cancer.Staying physically active after a diagnosis of thyroid cancer promises many benefits during and after treatment. Photo 123rf

Having Thyroid Cancer and Gaining the Benefits of Exercise Done Right

"After having surgery, I just wanted to get back to my summer at the beach,” Andrea recalls. During the first few weeks after surgery and before she could begin thyroid hormone replacement therapy, she gained about 20 pounds – something her boyfriend at the time made sure to point out. "It was a defining moment for me,” she says.

Several years of trying to lose weight, which included over-exercising, led to futility and frustration. It wasn’t until Andrea became a personal trainer that she went about working to conquer her body image issues that arose with her cancer diagnosis.

Then it was her mom’s turn. “My mom had a frozen shoulder after her first experience with breast cancer. No one told her to move her arm, and she ended up with nerve damage,” Andrea says. “The second time, she asked me to help her so I worked with her surgeons and physical therapist to develop ways to get her moving but not so much that she might injure herself.”

Most fitness instructors don’t have sufficient understanding of the physical challenges that occur as a result of cancer surgery, or of the fatigue that comes with chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Andrea tells EndocrineWeb.

In realizing this, she did a deep dive deep into this topic to understand the effects of cancer treatment on physical function. Andrea saw this as an opportunity to share the knowledge she had amassed with other personal trainers to help guide people who have or had cancer to move more and better throughout their recovery so she put her new-found knowledge into a book for personal trainers.

Exercise Helps to Lessen the Downsides of Cancer Treatment

“Exercise has a lot of benefits brought about by the release of endorphins (a type of hormone), to ameliorating the risks that come from some cancer treatments, she says.1-4 The major ones include type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression, and weight gain," she says.

Yet, people are rarely encouraged by their medical teams to exercise or increase their activity; and even when a patient is told to move more, there isn’t usually any guidance as to how to go about doing it comfortably and safely, Andrea says. “After major surgery, it's very easy to do the wrong movements if you don’t know any better, and that can set you back.”

"Creating programs that account for individual challenges can be very complex in terms of recommending just the right combination of flexibility and range of motion actions, strength training, functional fitness, and aerobic exercise to encourage cardiovascular fitness,” she says.

Patients facing cancer need to move—there is ample evidence that exercise can help extend the life of individuals with even the most advanced forms of cancer—but you have to find the safest way to accomplish your particular goals, she says.

Along with the pain and weakness that often follows surgery, patients also typically struggle through heavy fatigue that can make just getting out of bed hard. Given these challenges, the last thing most people think to do is move, let alone work out. “It was more than a month after I had surgery before I started getting my energy back,” Andrea recalls.

Having social support is another proven way to help get you going—plan to exercise with a friend or family member, or having an accountability partner like a member of the medical team, will help. Whoever it needs to push you, but not too hard. Sticking to a workout plan is good and listening to your body is equally important—do what feels comfortable but there’s no need to overdo it.

Components of an Exercise Program to Get You Through Your Cancer Care

A good rule of thumb is that you should feel better—more energized, less in pain—after you’ve exercised, Andrea says. “If you feel worse, then you are likely pushing too hard, doing too much, or picking the wrong exercises. It’s like your favorite food: too much or too little isn’t good for you.”

At least at the beginning, you might need convincing that you should put in the time and energy and even money if you opt for a personal trainer with experience and/or certification as a cancer specialist.

For anyone trying to keep it together during cancer treatment, going it alone is extra hard. “We don’t want to be viewed as a burden. We find it hard to ask for help. But we are worth it, and it will help make our recovery better and our lives longer,” Andrea says. Think of the comfort you will gain in having a personal trainer develop a workout routine that takes into account your preferences and physical ability. To find a personal trainer with cancer certification, go to CETI.

Four Exercise Tips for Thyroid Cancer Treatment and Surgery

  1. Neck stretches are important for those who have undergone external beam radiation to the head/neck and/or you've had lymph nodes removed. Andrea says. "These stretches will help to open up the lymphatic pathways to prevent and/or manage lymphedema."
  2. Avoid tilting the head backward until healing is complete since s it is bad for cervical discs and can open up incisions.
  3. Build lean muscle to rev your metabolism, as weight gain is common in many women after a thyroidectomy. The type of exercises you'll want to include are both weight-bearing and cardiovascular activities.
  4. Just 20 to 30 minutes, three or four times a week, is a reasonable goal to set during treatment, she says, and you can try to work up an hour of physical activity a day after your treatment is over.

“The time can be split up into five-minute increments throughout the day.” But don’t obsess over the specific amount of time. “The goal is to do what you can today. There may be times when you can’t make it past 20 minutes, so stop as necessary, and then add another 10-15 minutes later in the day. It’s getting the activity that matters, and as it adds up and it all helps,” Andrea says.

“While most people don’t think of exercise as medicine, it really can help heal your body and restore emotional wellbeing,” she says. Being active promotes positive thinking, wards of depression, improves your self-esteem, and equally important, physical activity will help to reduce your risks of developing other chronic diseases—most notably, osteoporosis, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and insomnia—that are common side effects of treatment.

Recognized as Personal Trainer of the Year for 2019, Andrea Leonard is founder and president of the Cancer Exercise Training Institute.  She is a certified personal trainer by the American Council on Exercise) and a corrective exercise specialist and a performance enhancement specialist through the American Academy of Sports Medicine, She is currently working on the 12th edition of a professional training book that developed out of her efforts to help herself, her mom, and now many others, to remain physically active despite the tolls that cancer can take on your body.5

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