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Exercise for Breast Cancer Prevention

As we close the chapter on October, #breastcancerawareness month, it is important to continue to acknowledge the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the state of New Hampshire in women.

Did you know that 1 in 8 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer? That is a staggering statistic to think about.

Thankfully, the relative survival rate of breast cancer has risen to 90%. We can relate this to improvements in early detection and screening, as well as improvements in treatment for cancer.

Although the survival rate for breast cancer has drastically improved, that does not mean women go through treatment unscathed.

Women who are candidates for surgical treatment will have either a lumpectomy or mastectomy (depending on tumor size and recommendation of their surgeon). Having either type of surgery is a life-changing procedure. Typically, a sentinel lymph node biospy will also be performed at the time of surgery. If this lymph node tests positive for cancer, an axillary lymph node dissection will be performed as well. Anytime the lymphatic system is surgically disrupted there is a risk of developing lymphedema. This can occur in the arm of the affected side, through the trunk or through the breast.

Chemotherapy medications may also be given to some patients before and/or after surgery, or utilized as an independent treatment without surgery. These medications can lead to long-term side effects, such as neuropathy in the hands and feet, resulting in trouble with balance, difficulty gripping objects and pain. Some chemotherapy medications also carry the risk of inducing the onset of osteoporosis, leading to an increased risk of fractures. Younger women can also be thrown into early menopause because of chemotherapy medications, resulting in infertility.

Radiation therapy is a localized treatment that some women may also have before and/or after surgery. Radiation can also be performed in areas that tumors metastasize to in women who have stage IV cancer. This treatment will permanently alter the elasticity and mobility of the skin and soft-tissues and can even be a threat to damaging the heart.

The purpose of discussing some of these common side effects is not to cast a shadow on treatment options, but to acknowledge the life-long fight that breast cancer survivors will continue to muddle through. It is to salute the warriors among us who have "beaten" cancer, yet continue to fight an often silent battle. Women should know that there are healthcare professionals who can help, including physical therapists, occupational therapists, mental health professionals and more.

The most important strategy to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence AND to prevent the initial onset of breast cancer is to maintain a healthy BMI and to exercise an adequate amount.

Exercise can look like many different things, including dancing, yoga, swimming, cycling, CrossFit, etc. So, how does one know that they are getting the appropriate dosage of exercise?

Moderate physical activity should be performed between 150-300 minutes per week. This can be easily broken down into a 30 minute routine 5 days a week. A moderately difficult activity should elevate your heart rate and breathing so that you can talk while exercising, but not sing.

If this time commitment sounds daunting, vigorous physical activity can alternatively be performed at a lower dosage of 75-150 minutes per week. A vigorous activity will increase the heart rate and breathing more than a moderate task and participants should not be able to talk in full sentences at exertion. Common examples of vigorous exercise includes various styles of high intensity interval training (HIIT), such as CrossFit.

If you'd like to learn more about risk reduction strategies, need help with developing a safe and effective exercise routine or need help managing some of the side effects of breast cancer, please reach out. If you are someone who has or has had breast cancer, know you are not alone. Consider joining a support group or get involved with a local organization to support others going through this journey.

Knowing breast cancer exists is not enough. Get educated and pass it on.

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