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Get Your Strength Back After Cancer

This blog was written by Carolyn Garritt, author of ‘Get Your Oomph Back’.

Cancer treatment can leave you feeling tired and weakened. Each of the treatment modalities (surgery, chemo, radiotherapy, hormones, immunotherapy) can, in one way or another, result in fatigue, and in us feeling like we do not have the strength that we did before diagnosis. Most people find that they need to move less, and rest more, during treatment and that can lead to the muscles becoming ‘deconditioned’ as they have had a period when they worked less.

If you’ve been out of action for a while, the chances are you’ll have lost some of your muscular strength and this can be why simply climbing the stairs or getting out of a chair feels harder than it did. Resistance training can help to rebuild our functional strength.

Alongside muscle loss, cancer treatments can leave us with stiff or painful joints and with a reduced range of motion, and exercise can be used to help diminish pain and to build strength in the connective tissue – the tendons and ligaments that support the joints and help them to remain mobile.

Strength, or resistance, training is therefore a key component of cancer rehabilitation. It is my belief that everyone who has had a cancer diagnosis would feel the benefit from it and should plan to be doing activities to that end for the rest of our lives. There is a full programme of relevant exercises that you can tailor to your individual situation in my book Get Your Oomph Back but, in honour of World Cancer Day, I am providing here for-free a guide plus short film to the 10 most universally useful exercises for anyone with a cancer diagnosis. These will help you with lung capacity and lower-body strength.

Try this. The exercise I perhaps use more than any other: sit to stand

Sit in a hard-seated chair that’s either heavy or resting against a wall (so it can’t slide backwards). Looking ahead, rather than at the floor, stand up without pushing yourself off with your arms. Try to avoid stamping the floor – keep your feet flat, firm, hip-width apart. Sit back down again, trying to control your downward motion so that you land on the seat gently.


Repeat this for as long as you can – 10 or 12 stands might be enough for now. As you get into a rhythm, try to dig your heels into the floor when you’re coming up to stand, as this activates the glutes (the big muscles in your buttocks). Gently squeeze your bum as you come to stranding straight. Build this up – it’ll really help. See if you can get to a point that you can sit-to-stand for a whole minute.

Then try speeding up and work on how many you can fit in – with good technique, mind – during that minute. Eventually, it can be done holding a weight, or on one leg.


Client story: How sit-to-stand got Hima fit for surgery

Hima was diagnosed with lung cancer, and although surgery was the best treatment option, her surgical team felt that she would find it difficult to tolerate. So, aged in her mid-eighties, she was advised to get fitter, so that she could safely have her surgery. She started coming along to the gentle exercise class that I run. I don’t think she had done anything like it before in her life.

At the end of each class, the whole group does as many ‘sit-to-stand’ as they feel they can. This exercise gets you properly out of puff, sends the heart rate right up, and is helpful for building strength in your lower body and confidence in your own ability. It is the one exercise, more than any other, that I urge people to do at home as well as in the class, and Hima did her home study with considerable gusto. She just got completely into doing them, and would bob up and down, grinning. The number she could do increased massively over the weeks until she reached the magnificent point that she outdid everyone else in the room, keeping going longer than any of her classmates, most of whom were 20, 30, 40 years younger than her. She was able to stand up out of a chair and sit down again more than 60 times. The average for her age is 9-14.

And then she disappeared from the class. Her family got in touch a little later to say that she had had her surgery.

From ‘Get your oomph back’ – 10 lower body strength exercises to do at home

This routine will work the large muscles around the legs, hips and buttocks, and therefore could help to improve strength that you will notice in everyday activities. Provided it’s safe for you to exercise (it’s always worth checking with a GP or one of your cancer team), this can be performed at home. You just need a firm chair that won’t roll away or tip back, and a resistance band.

Follow this short film, which illustrates the lower body strength routine that is in the book.

Try to do 10 to 12 of each move, then have a rest. You could do the routine every other day – this is regular enough but still allows the muscles their time to repair. Build up so that you can do the routine, have a rest, then repeat it a second time.

‘Get Your Oomph Back’ by Carolyn Garritt is available directly from Hammersmith Books, and from all major booksellers.

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