Breast Cancer and the Athlete: Part 3, Resistance and Resilience

By SUSAN GILCHRIST, M.D., M.S.

We have talked for the last two weeks about the mechanics of how an athlete going through breast cancer treatment stays fit–  whether we are discussing aerobic intensity, training bout length, or frequency - it basically comes down to numbers and timing. 

I will say, though, that an additional focus on resistance training is critical given breast cancer patients experience a loss of lean muscle mass and an increase in fat mass during chemotherapy. I suspect that, in many cases, a loss of fitness for an athlete is not due to changes in heart, lung, or vascular integrity, but due to a significant loss of muscle mass and function. Thus, now, I am a big advocate for a weight-appropriate resistance training program at least 2 times a week with modification for lymphedema, as necessary. 

In addition to aerobic and resistance training, there is one intangible we have not discussed. Going back to our case (Part 1), the athlete, despite multiple obstacles as outlined in the manuscript, regained her pre-diagnosis fitness at 2 years. This is truly remarkable and a testament not only to her training regimen but also to her resilience. In my opinion, she saw herself as an athlete first, not a breast cancer patient. She utilized her competitive spirit and love of sport to propel her through each roadblock. Resilience is a trait that each of you reading this blog have. I challenge each one of you to think like an athlete and make exercise a priority throughout your treatment

Next week, I will give you some helpful tips to get you started. Please send me comments if you would like for me to address a particular area of interest!
- Dr. G