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Restorative Exercise During Cancer Treatment

Physical Activity Is Key to Well-Being

When Maria Ibanez, a teaching assistant, learned her breast cancer had returned after two years in remission, she was anxious about undergoing treatment again. This time, she added something new to her treatment plan — restorative yoga and fitness classes offered at the LivingWell Cancer Resource Center, part of Northwestern Medicine.


“Exercise is very important during cancer treatment to support healing, increase flexibility and range of motion, and reduce stress,” says Erin Bloodworth, ACSM-EP, wellness coordinator at LivingWell. “We tailor our classes to address the specific needs of our patients and where they are at in their cancer journey.”

During Maria’s first round of treatment, LivingWell services were only offered in Geneva which wasn’t convenient for Maria’s busy schedule as a teacher But, when LivingWell opened a second location in Warrenville, just two doors down from where she would receive treatment at Northwestern Medicine Cancer Center Warrenville, she was able to take advantage of the class offerings.

Maria needed radiation therapy five days a week for several weeks. Some days, she would go to yoga before therapy, and other days she would go right after. The effect was so profound, that Maria’s radiation therapist could tell right away if she had just come from a yoga session.

“It was fabulous. Yoga and meditation calmed my fear and emotions and took the anxiety away,” says Maria. “I would go into radiation relaxed and ready for my treatment.”

While there have been many advances in cancer care, treatment often causes fatigue, pain, a decrease in functional ability, loss of muscle and a range of other physical side effects. Research shows that supervised exercise during cancer treatment can alleviate side effects and improve healing.

“Physical activity can benefit patients with cancer at all points in their journey, from pre-diagnosis to the treatment of advanced disease. There is no question that exercise can help patients deal with the side effects of cancer treatment, and in some cases, it has been shown to improve outcomes,” says Christopher M. George, MD, who is the medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Oncology Program in the west and south suburbs. “That is in addition to all the other known benefits of physical activity: improved cardiac function, strength, stamina, etc. We are so lucky to have LivingWell as a resource for our patients, to help facilitate these types of activities.”

There are several Mindful Movement classes at LivingWell to address the specific physical needs of patients with cancer. These include classes for people with lymphedema and neuropathy, as well as classes to improve bone health. All programs and services at LivingWell are provided at no cost to people impacted by cancer.

“In my class, we were predominantly breast cancer survivors or women currently going through treatment. The stretching exercises to open up our chests and improve range of motion in our arms was so helpful,” says Maria. “And it was nice to have the support of the other participants who were going through the same thing as me.”

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Christopher M. George, MD
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