sport after cancer

Physical activity is recognised by the Haute Autorité de santé (French Health High Authority) as a non-medicinal therapy, offering important benefits in terms of quality of life and survival during and after cancer treatment.

Oncologist Laurence Vanlemmens, and medical sports instructor Hervé Mocaer, both members of the Sport & Cancer Service at the Oscar Lambret Centre in Lille, explain to us what are the benefits of sport during and after breast cancer.

You feel very tired when you are undergoing or have done breast cancer treatment. Is sport or a physical activity advisable in this situation?

Laurence Vanlemmens – Oncologist: Doing a physical activity or a sport is advisable and even recommended, during or after treatment. It should play an integral part of the care given due to the proven benefits to quality of life and the reduction in relapse rates and mortality.The old adage "you are tired, take a rest" no longer holds true today.

We now know that doing a physical activity, as soon as the diagnosis is made, contributes to fighting against the fatigue induced by treatments. The frequency, intensity and duration of physical activity contribute to the effectiveness of therapy. We then determine and adapt it to each patient after an initial medical sports assessment and regular evaluations.

Hervé Mocaer – Medical Sports Instructor: When we are tired, we tend to lose muscle mass and gain in body fat. It's a vicious circle that accentuates vulnerability. There is a decline in cardiovascular capacity, physical effort becomes demanding, and the body image is affected. That is why, whenever possible, you have to do some because sport combats fatigue and the negative dynamic it induces.

Starting physical exercise as soon as you the diagnosis is made and on a regular basis, during and after treatment, helps to combat deconditioning (physical and social inactivity that the illness or the side effects can lead to) and sustain your body image.

Other than combating fatigue, what are the other benefits of sport during and after treatment? 

L.V. : There are plenty. Sport helps to recover and improve quality of life from a social and psychological perspective. It helps to reduce anxiety, the use of sedative-hypnotic drugs and the risk of developing depression.

Medically it combats the side effects of treatment such as pain in joints linked to chemotherapy and hormone therapy, reduces lymphoedema* (Baumann 2018) or neurological pains due to neuropathies* linked to certain chemotherapies.

It also combats sarcopenia, which is the loss of muscle mass.

It improves the physical functions of endurance, muscle strength, balance and suppleness.

It also combats sedentary lifestyle and excess weight. We know today that the benefits start as soon as you do moderate exercise, and are even more significant when the activity is intensive and sustained long-term. The benefits of a physical activity or a sports are explained by the actions on the biological mechanisms such as reduction in inflammation, an improved insulin sensitivity, a reduction in oestrogen and a stronger immune system

H.M. : The patients affected by breast cancer sometimes suffer from social isolation due to sick leave and a lack of self-esteem caused by illness. During this period, the body image can evolve (hair loss, weight gain or loss, fatigue, changes to the skin) and lead to you worrying about the way other people look at you and withdraw into yourself.

Doing sport during and after cancer remains a way of meeting and talking to people, and when you do a physical activity in a specialised centre, it constitutes an opportunity to meet women with similar experiences. In any case, it helps to regain confidence.

physical fitness - sport and cancer

*Lymphoedema: swelling of a limb caused by an accumulation of lymph. It causes feelings of heaviness and tension that can give rise to pain in lower back and/or joints.

*Neuropathy: refers to a disorder that affects nerves of the body's peripheral nervous system outside the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord and cerebellum). They can cause pins and needles in hands and feet.

In post-treatment, a moderate aerobic activity of 30 mn a day combined with building muscle strength helps to reduce the risk of relapse.

Can this course of care to combat relapse be suitable for people who don't do sport? 

L.V. : What we, of course, explain to female patients is that physical activity is not necessarily a sports activity. We take into account everyday activity, such as commuting, work, housework, leisure to evaluate physical activity so as to create an appropriate and personalised care programme.

As opposed to a fitness centre, we adapt sports activity to each individual needs and limitations, and not the other way round.

Depending on profiles, women perform sports sessions independently, or in a centre intended to support them.

H.M. : When female patients explain that they have never done any sport or even any physical activity, we are here to reassure and support them. 

The coordination of care and skills is essential. Depending on the needs, we can point them in the direction of other health professionals (rheumatologist, physical therapist, nutritionist...). With most sports recommended, including walking, dancing, running, we seek to first and foremost find the right balance between the person getting enjoyment out of doing a physical activity and the goals of therapy, helping to appreciate the benefits.


What about you, what do you think? Does sport have a role to play during and after breast cancer treatment?

Feel free to share you experience with us.


Obviously, nothing will replace your doctor's advice. When taking up a sports activity again, activities as part of a course of care, increasing intensity of physical effort... the advice of your doctor, or a health professional remains vitally important.