Exercise post-surgery and radiation guidelines

Physical exercise can positively impact your social, psychological and vocational functioning. Gabriella Kourie advises on what exercise to do after surgery or radiation.

Over the past 40 years, cancer survivor rates have drastically increased. This is a result of improved patient and medical prevention, early and accurate detection as well as targeted and specialised treatments.

Coming out of the other side of treatment can be like entering an unknown territory for patients and there are some body changes you may need to adjust to. The physical changes post-surgery is an aspect to consider as well as your body’s physical capabilities, and this may impact you further in terms of social, psychological and vocational functions.

Easy does it

You may want to emerge back into normal life as soon as possible whereas others have little to no interest in exercising or the benefits that they can have on recovery as well as longevity. 

It’s vital to remember that your body is still recovering from treatment even if you’re no longer on active treatment. Chemotherapy and radiation are both accumulative in nature and it takes a while for this build-up to work its way out of your system. 

Maintaining guided physical exercises during treatment can already improve your functional tolerance and ensure a fast-return back into exercising. 

Regardless of what training you decide to do, muscle wasting, joint stiffness as well as deconditioning and fatigue are inevitable after longs periods of treatment, so go slowly. Have patience with yourself and with your body’s capabilities. 

Key components needed

Below is the order of the key components that need to be addressed when returning to exercising:  

  • Breathing 
  • Pain management 
  • Posture awareness 
  • Improving and regaining full range of motion (ROM) 
  • Core strengthening and dynamic stabilisation 
  • Upper and lower limb resistance training 
  • Increased complexity of exercises and progressive resistance training (PRT) 

As you can see, there is a long but meaningful checklist to go through to ensure that physical recovery is achieved safely and effectively, without encountering any secondary injuries or any unnecessary pain and strain.

Safety aspects

There are many safe branches of exercise that patients can explore to find what best suits their capabilities. 

It’s important to set goals and make sure that your expectations are realistic. There are some safety aspects to consider when training post-surgery and radiation. Please make sure that you get the go-ahead from your treating cardiologist to start endurance training. 

If there are any secondary complications after your surgery and radiation, it doesn’t rule you out from exercising, but may limit you in what is safe to do. Please discuss this with a trained oncology rehabilitation therapist.

Best exercises to do

Exercises that include prolonged stretching and core stability are highly encouraged. Pilates, yoga, walking and gentle stretching are all excellent starting points after surgery and/or radiation. 

Once you have regained full range of motion, with controlled pain management, then other sporting activities are encouraged. Many patients benefit greatly from sports, such as tennis, rowing, running and swimming. These more vigorous activities are appropriate to do from six to eight weeks post radiation (depending on your recovery and what has been advised by your treating oncologist and medical team). 

There has recently been a lot of discussion around trampolining for improved lymph drainage and circulation. In theory, this exercise sounds good but please consider the implications if you have had reconstructive breast surgery or abdominal surgery. Your tissues are still sensitive and healing, so bouncing too soon may cause internal disturbances. 

Wear correct supportive clothing

Another important factor to consider is to ensure that you wear the correct supportive clothing and devices when exercising. For breast cancer patients, a high-impact bra will provide comfort and support when doing exercises. 

If you have an ostomy bag, then speak to your rehabilitation therapist about using a protective cover. If pressure garments have been prescribed to you then please discuss the incorporation of wearing them with your lymphoedema therapist.

Exercise can be tailored to anyone who has gone through treatment and is not a one-size-fits-all prescription. 

Allow yourself to be in control of your health and your lifestyle choices. 

Gabriella Kourie is a qualified occupational therapist. She further trained and qualified 
as a PORi oncology and breast cancer rehabilitation therapist and is currently qualifying in Lymphoedema Assessment 
and Treatment.

MEET THE EXPERT – Gabriella Kourie

Gabriella Kourie qualified as an occupational therapist in 2017, and further trained and qualified as a PORi oncology and breast cancer rehabilitation therapist in 2020. Most recently, she qualified as a PINC & STEEL oncology rehabilitation therapist in 2021. Gabriella is still continuing her studies in Lymphoedema Assessment and Treatment.

Header image by Adocbe Stock