Pain, depression, anxiety and fatigue may be experienced during breast cancer treatment. When these side effects occur, exercise and proper diet may go into freefall on your list of priorities. However, maintaining physical activity and proper nutrition are two of the most important things a breast cancer patient can do to combat these symptoms and improve their outcome.

“If you’re currently undergoing breast cancer treatment, eating well and staying active will help improve your outcome and your quality of life,” said Jacqueline Guerriero, D.O., a breast cancer surgeon at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre.

The benefits of regular exercise during treatment

As little as 15 years ago, many doctors recommended against exercising during breast cancer treatment. Today, it’s better understood that not only is exercise safe, but it also has far-reaching benefits both during and after breast cancer treatment. The added good news is that it doesn’t take a lot of exercise to have a positive impact, and modification is the name of the game.

“During radiation and chemotherapy, patients should continue to stay active but realize they will have to take it slower,” said Dr. Guerriero. “The goal is to keep moving, which helps the body heal and get stronger during treatment.”

Moderate exercise during breast cancer treatment helps combat fatigue, improve heart and lung function, increase muscle strength and improve your body composition (the proportion of fat, bone and muscle that makes up your body). It also improves the immune system so it can help the healing process.

Yoga also has a positive impact on breast cancer patients. Research has shown that yoga practitioners undergoing breast cancer treatment decrease their stress, anxiety and depression.

“Breast cancer patients undergoing treatment should be careful about where they exercise,” said Dr. Guerriero. “Treatment compromises your immune system, making it harder to fight off infections that would normally be no problem for a healthy body.”

For this reason, it may be wise to skip the gym or group classes to reduce the risk of contracting an illness.

Focus on healthy foods

Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, which help to repair damaged cells. Women who eat lots of fruits and vegetables may have a lower risk for developing breast cancer. They may also have a lower risk of recurrence of breast cancer and the development of new, second cancers. Your best strategy is to get your antioxidants from the food you eat, since studies have not shown any direct link between supplements and lower risk of breast cancer.

“There is also evidence that consuming an adequate number of calories and protein during breast cancer treatment helps improve a patient’s outcome,” said Dr. Guerriero. “Just like moderate exercise, calories and protein give the immune system a boost, improve overall strength and counteract the side effects of treatment, such as nausea and fatigue.”

Patients should also consider limiting alcohol intake during breast cancer treatment. There is some evidence that alcohol increases the amount of estrogen in the body, which could increase the risk for estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer to recur. While more studies are needed to show this connection, alcohol has other negative effects on breast cancer treatment, such as increasing fatigue and lowering immunity.

“Listen to your body during breast cancer treatment,” said Dr. Guerriero. “Diet and exercise can help immensely, but don’t need to stress out about it; if your body tells you to rest or indulge in your favorite food, that’s okay.”