Exercising During Chemo: Just Do It

Erin Hazelton is a freelance writer and women’s health advocate. Formerly a fashion and beauty writer, Erin’s career changed paths after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. Since then, her main objective has been educating women about the nuances of breast cancer and encouraging resilience in the face of adversity.

Studies show that people who exercise while undergoing chemo have better outcomes during and after treatment. According to an article in Medical News Today, a 2021 study found that “the risk of recurrence was 63% lower in breast cancer survivors who exercised 2-5 days of the week compared to inactive participants. People only need to exercise for 1 hour per week to see benefits."

Exercising not only keeps your body strong, it also releases endorphins, which help elevate your mood, squelch depression, and enable you to have a more positive outlook when your life sucks. 

Working out with a personal trainer once a week was a gift I gave myself during treatment. My trainer, Elyse Smith, came to my home on day three or four after my infusions so I didn’t have to go to the gym and worry about germs… or stress about my hair falling out all over my mat during a yoga class (which happened, and was ultimately the reason I decided no more gym for me during chemo). 

I had been working out with Elyse prior to my diagnosis, so she knew my fitness level (I was fit) and my only directive to her was to keep me strong during treatment. 

“Initially, I was nervous to train you,” Elyse told me recently. “I expected that you might be too weak to train, but that was far from the truth. I watched exercise and movement become a cornerstone of your chemo toolbox... you brought your frustrations, worries, concerns, and stresses to the mat and left them there.” 

Three days after my first ACT treatment, Elyse rang my doorbell, having no idea what to expect. Neither of us had any experience with cancer and chemo. I had texted her the night before, “I’m good to go. I walked a mile today and I didn’t die. Let’s do this.”

Instead of “just keeping me strong,” Elyse had done some research… and brought tools in the form of all kinds of things I could roll on: a hard, fabric-covered ball for my feet, a matching skinny bar—same striped fabric as the ball—with a bulge in the middle and a wheel either end, to help roll out my legs. I now know this to be called a Trigger Point Therapy Kit. Elyse had also asked me to order a half-size textured foam roller, its “spikes,” as I called them, helping us get a little deeper into my tissue, relaxing my muscles and also making sure nothing “sat” in my fibers for too long. She wanted to boost my blood circulation and keep my lymphatic system pumping to rid my body of the chemo. 

“I knew that chemo can cause neuropathy [numbing of the hands and feet] and many other negative side effects, and that inactivity could make them worse. So getting your blood pumping with consistent and safe movements was the baseline of our workouts. We began every session with a series of myofascial releases, increasing blood flow to the muscles and extremities. I wanted to keep you as physiologically robust as possible.” 

After rolling around and warming up, Elyse assigned a circuit of exercises she knew I would be comfortable doing: a dynamic warm up, glute activation, squats, deadlifts, and core work.

Because I had been in bed a lot the days before she trained me, Elyse wanted to make sure that my muscle fibers did not become stagnant, firing them up, and reminded me on the days she wasn’t there to roll and move. She was also concerned about my balance, worried that if I started showing signs of neuropathy, it would throw me off. Luckily, neuropathy wasn’t an issue for me, though I did get dizzy a few times and had to stop for a minute, collect myself, and start again. (I have low blood pressure in general, so getting up quickly— even when without chemo—can send me spinning.)

When I wasn’t working out with Elyse, I went for walks in Central Park. When I was feeling completely “normal,” I went for runs, careful to gauge how I was feeling, allowing myself to walk if ever it felt like too much. 

Aside from staying alive, staying strong mentally and physically were my main goals during chemotherapy. These workouts help me in so many ways. They distracted me from my “reality” for a moment, they also allowed me to demonstrate to my children that I wasn’t afraid of cancer. That it might slow me down a tad, but it wasn’t going to take me down in any way, shape, or form. There are so many stigmas attached to cancer, and I wanted to blow the “it makes you weak” one out of the water. 

When you are given a cancer diagnosis, you lose control. In order to stop your cancer, you need treatment. That treatment is harsh. Exercising was one small thing I could control. It was something that helped remind me that my body was still mine in spite of the science project I felt like it had become. 

The side effects of my treatment were milder than many women I’ve spoken to and I credit that to working out, walking, rolling, getting out of bed every single day. I also drank a ton of water each day and had acupuncture for nausea and neuropathy the day before each of my infusions. Choosing to put myself and my body first during my bout with cancer was the best thing I could have done. 

I also realize I was in the lucky position that my kids were in school full-time, that my mom was able to move in for several months to help me with the kids, that I had a hands-on husband, that I could work from home, and could afford to have someone like Elyse come to my place and physically challenge me when I felt like my body was already being challenged enough. That said, in the post-COVID world we currently find ourselves living, exercising at home—no physical trainer needed—is easier than ever. There are subscription-based studios and there is YouTube, which is free. And if that’s too much, you still have a pair of  legs and they are perfectly capable of taking you out for a stroll.  

What I’m saying is there’s no excuse. Take care of yourself physically and you will benefit mentally. 

Just do it.

When you are given a cancer diagnosis, you lose control. In order to stop your cancer, you need treatment. That treatment is harsh. Exercising was one small thing I could control. It was something that helped remind me that my body was still mine in spite of the science project I felt like it had become.

- Erin Hazelton


  • Alison

    My oncologist told me to avoid massage and acupuncture during chemo because of infection risk and because of skin problems associated with Taxol. So far my symptoms from chemo have also been mild and I’m doing massages (nothing deep) the day after each infusion. Did your acupuncturist do her regular thing on you or adjust for infection risks? Breaking the skin with the needles does pose an infection risk, I suppose, especially if your counts are low.

  • Gemma

    As a hardcore CrossFitter that was just diagnosed with cancer – this was so comforting to read. Thank you.

  • Katrina

    Thank you love this post..will definitely try it.

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