Exercising as a Cancer Survivor
- Stephanie Panetello was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2019. She turned to rowing to regain her strength after chemotherapy, a liver transplant from her husband and acute kidney failure.
- Liver cancer begins in the liver – an organ located beneath the diaphragm and above the stomach. The most common form of the disease is hepatocellular carcinoma, but there are other types of liver cancers as well.
- Studies have shown that maintaining an active lifestyle can be helpful for cancer prevention, for patients undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments, and for survivors recovering from treatment.
Panetello was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2019. But given that her family had no history of the disease prior to her diagnosis, the news came as a shock.Read More
For treatment, Panetello first had to undergo multiple rounds of lengthy chemotherapy sessions.
“My first round of treatment consisted of me lying on my back for five straight days,” she wrote. “I had a stent placed that directed chemo through my main hepatic artery to my liver. I did those four times. I left the hospital each month hobbling, weak, and tired. But I was able to recover somewhat between each treatment.”
Following her four rounds of chemo, Panetello was told she needed a liver transplant to reduce her risk of recurrence. Luckily, her husband proved to be the perfect match and gave her 69 percent of his liver on June 23, 2020. But even after that, she needed more systemic chemotherapy in the form of infusions and chemo pills.
“My body didn’t do too well with any of it,” she wrote. “I had extreme side effects that led to acute kidney failure.”
Today, she’s doing much better, and her doctor has even said he believed she’d been cured. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t struggle to get her body back to feeling more normal, and, in her search to regain strength, she stumbled upon rowing back in March.
“Rowing was instrumental in helping me recover from the toll cancer took on my body,” she wrote. “Rowing not only strengthens my body but also gives me achievable goals to mark my progress. I often walk away from the studio amazed at how far I’ve come in one year. I’ve already finished a half-marathon and have my sights on a full marathon in February.”
Pantello has never been so hooked on any type of exercise, and she’s determined to stick with it. And whenever she considers quitting, she goes back to her time in the hospital.
“I think about the times I was lying flat on my back in the hospital fighting for my life, and I push through those thoughts — thankful that I’m alive and can row and move my body without sickness or pain,” she wrote. “I would never wish cancer on anyone, but the way it enriched my life and made me a stronger person is immeasurable.”
Understanding Liver Cancer
Liver cancer begins in the liver – an organ located beneath the diaphragm and above the stomach. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 42,230 new cases (29,890 in men and 12,340 in women) of primary liver cancer and intrahepatic bile duct cancer will be diagnosed by the end of 2021. The most common form of the disease is hepatocellular carcinoma, but there are other types of liver cancers as well.
Several risk factors can increase a person’s chance of developing hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) including, but not limited to, the following:
- Gender (Hepatocellular carcinoma is much more common in men than in women)
- Race/ethnicity (In the United States, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have the highest rates of liver cancer, followed by Hispanics/Latinos, American Indians/Alaska Natives, African Americans, and whites)
- Chronic viral hepatitis
- Cirrhosis (a disease in which liver cells become damaged and are replaced by scar tissue)
- Heavy alcohol use
- Tobacco use
- Type 2 diabetes
Blood tests, ultrasounds, CT scans (X-ray images), MRIs (medical imaging) and angiograms are generally used to confirm a liver cancer diagnosis. A liver biopsy, where a small piece of tissue is removed and analyzed for cancerous cells, may also be performed.
Oftentimes, a liver transplant is considered the best plan when the patient is eligible. For cases of recurrent liver cancer and cancer that has spread throughout the body, your doctor may consider targeted therapy, immunotherapy or chemotherapy as the next step.
Exercise for Cancer Survivors
Everyone wants to feel better after cancer treatment, but finding ways to do that can be a challenge. It could be painting, running, hiking, dancing, writing or any number of things. For Panetello, rowing was the answer, but she’s not the only one who found happiness on the water.
Similar to Panetello, Heather Maloney was struggling after cancer treatment. The breast cancer survivor underwent chemotherapy, surgery and radiation that left her feeling pretty beat down. But then she found dragon boating – a sport that’s become hugely popular among cancer survivors and drew thousands from all over the world for a recent festival in Italy. Now, she’s a member of the Empire Dragons, a dragon boating team of breast cancer survivors based in New York City.
“It’s very exciting,” Heather says. “For people who had gone through such a beating, everyone had gone through a very challenging time in their treatment. And then to go on, and kick it, hard, on a dragon boat … it’s very fun.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, physical activity is beneficial for cancer survivors. The NCI cited findings from a report of the 2018 American College of Sports Medicine International Multidisciplinary Roundtable on physical activity and cancer prevention and control in saying that exercise is generally good for cancer survivors. The roundtable also found:
- Strong evidence that moderate-intensity aerobic training and/or resistance exercise during and after cancer treatment can reduce anxiety, depressive symptoms and fatigue and improve health-related quality of life and physical function.
- Strong evidence that exercise training is safe in persons who have or might develop breast-cancer-related lymphedema.
- Some evidence that exercise is beneficial for bone health and sleep quality.
- Insufficient evidence that physical activity can help prevent cardiotoxicity or chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy or improve cognitive function, falls, nausea, pain, sexual function or treatment tolerance.
Still, it’s important to note that other experts like Dr. Sairah Ahmed, associate professor in the Division of Cancer Medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, say being in good shape during your cancer battle is very beneficial. In fact, studies suggest that physical activity can be a powerful antidote for side effects of cancer treatment like “chemo brain” and, according to Dr. Ahmed, the more physically fit you are during cancer treatment, the less side effects you’ll have and the faster you’ll get back to your normal quality of life.
“In terms of cancer, oftentimes patients feel that they don’t have any control over any part of their life, and that’s not true,” Ahmed told SurvivorNet in an earlier interview. “Diet, exercise, and stress control are extremely important when going through cancer therapy, as well as once you’re done treating your cancer and trying to get back to the rest of your life.”
And Dr. Ken Miller, the director of outpatient oncology at the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center, recommends these four things for cancer survivors to do to try and avoid another cancer diagnosis:
- Exercise at least two hours a week – walking counts
- Eat a low-fat diet
- Eat a colorful diet with lots of fruits and vegetables – doctors recommend two to three cups a day
- Maintain a healthy weight