The Long Road Back: Physical Fitness After Cancer

One of the aspects of cancer that surprised me the most is the physical toll that it took on my body. From my muscle strength to my ability to endure exercise, I noticed a significant decline in what my body could accomplish immediately after treatment. It didn’t help that near the end of my treatment in 2012 I was hospitalized for seven weeks while my doctors tended to a dangerous and extremely painful bowel obstruction. Nothing had prepared me for the length of my hospitalized, and I seriously don’t think my medical team planned for me to have such an extended stay in an acute care bed on the cancer unit. I will always remember the relief and unrestrained joy that I felt when I was finally discharged from the hospital. However, it wasn’t long before I realized that my ordeal had taken a tremendous toll on my body.

For the first time in my life I learned what it’s like not to be able to walk medium or long distances. It took nearly all the strength I could muster just to stand or walk very short distances, and climbing stairs was out of the question for me. I quickly discovered that the muscles in my legs had atrophied during the endless weeks that I was confined to a hospital bed. On the day I went home I had an absolutely helpless feeling as I was transported from my hospital unit to my mother’s waiting car in a wheelchair. As we drove I knew my recovery would be arduous and probably take months.


Like many cancer patients, I began slowly and took my recovery one day at a time.  As your ability increases, you should begin to expand your activities, looking to improve your aerobic fit­ness, strength, and flexibility. No one exercise or activity is uni­versally recommended over another. The best exercises or activities are the ones that are safe and that you enjoy (or dislike the least). The central pillar of my exercise routine involves taking a 20-minute walk every day. Study after study has extolled walking as a simple, inexpensive exercise with incredible health benefits. From a cancer patient’s perspective, walking regularly has been proven to strengthen the body and ease the mind. Several recent studies suggest that higher levels of physical activity are associated with a reduced risk of the cancer coming back, and longer survival after a cancer diagnosis.

The amount of exercise you require or that is medically advisable differs among individuals and you should always consult your doctor before establishing a fitness routine. The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors get 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise at least five days each week. They also give some suggestions for fitting exercise into your day:

  • Start a daily walking routine.
  • Wear a fitness tracker, and try to go a bit farther each day.
  • Walk or bike to your destination, when you can.
  • Exercise with family, friends, or co-workers.
  • Use a stationary bicycle or treadmill.

The evidence linking physical activity with improved quality of life in those undergoing active cancer treatment and those who have completed it is incredibly strong. There are proven emotional and psychological benefits in addition to the physical ones. The most robust evidence is for people who have completed active cancer treatment, notes Dr. Kerry Courneya from the University of Alberta, who has led a number of clinical trials of physical activity in cancer patients. What experts have long suspected has now been proven. As a cancer survivor, exercising could help you live a longer life—free from recurrence.

Essentially there are three main types of exercises that can help cancer patients get back in shape.

  1. Flexibility exercises (stretching). Virtually everyone can do flexibility exercises. Stretching is important to keep moving, to maintain mobility. If you’re not yet ready for more vigorous exercise, you should at least stay flexible.
  2. Aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, jogging, and swimming. This kind of exercise burns calories and helps you lose weight. Aerobic exercise also builds cardiovascular fitness, which lowers the risk of heart attackstroke, and diabetes.
  3. Resistance training (lifting weights or isometric exercise), which builds muscle. Many people lose muscle, but gain fat, through cancer treatment. For those with a high fat-to-lean mass ratio, resistance training can be especially helpful.

It’s recommend that you consult with your physician or a fitness expert to learn more about which exercises are the best for you. Personally, I know that the road to fitness after cancer can be long and difficult, but it can also be extremely rewarding. Within a year after finishing my treatment, I had progressed from pushing an IV pole down a hospital corridor to completing five kilometres in the Ovarian Cancer Canada Walk of Hope!

Ottawa Cancer Survivor Redefines Beauty

Kelly Davidson’s photos go viral on the Internet


In my introductory blog post, Survivorship 101 published in January, I introduced the concept of “embracing the new pretty” in the wake of my uterine and ovarian cancer. Basically this involves trying to come to terms with the physical changes to my body due to cancer treatments, an issue that all women who have had a major cancer diagnosis experience. For many survivors the changes can be profound and emotionally devastating. In the event of uterine or ovarian cancer, transformations to a woman’s body will typically include a permanently and severely scarred abdomen as well as the removal of her internal reproductive organs. Meanwhile, breast cancer patients face mastectomies, biopsies or lumpectomies. Embracing the new pretty involves accepting these physical changes and also questioning our culture’s popular notions about femininity and beauty. In my opinion, an Ottawa woman has exemplified my concept and taken it to a new level!

Kelly Davidson, 34, has battled three bouts of cancer. After surviving Hodgkin’s lymphoma, breast and thyroid cancers she had a double mastectomy and opted for a tattoo instead of reconstructive surgery. Davidson caused quite a stir recently when she posted photographs of her chest on the Internet, she has gained notoriety and been interviewed by such media outlets as the Toronto Star and the CBC. She is proud of her chest. Much of the surface between her collarbone and ribs has been transformed into an intricately inked enchanted forest, complete with beautifully drawn butterflies and a fairy releasing them into the sky. The tattoos cover the surface where her breasts used to sit, now removed to make sure her breast cancer never returns.

When it came time to consider reconstructive breast surgery, Davidson knew precisely what she wanted—and that didn’t involve a new pair. Rather than get reconstructive surgery, she opted for a tattoo. She had already been inked a few times and chose a fantasy scene with butterflies to symbolize the cancer leaving her body. “I decided to turn this negative thing into a positive, and put a beautiful piece of artwork in place of something that to a lot of people is really devastating,” Davidson says. “They were just breasts. They weren’t me—I don’t need to have breasts to be feminine or sexy,” she recently told the Toronto Star.

Taste in tattoo artwork is highly personal and individual, Davidson envisioned herself sporting a tableau that would include butterflies, creatures to represent the cancer retreating from her body for good. Proud of the finished result, she uploaded a photo of her chest to Why We Ink, a Facebook group dedicated to sharing images of those who have gotten tattoos inspired by the fight with cancer. Some of these tattoos are body mosaics, like Davidson’s, to symbolize beauty where there was once the threat of death. Others post pictures of their tattoos that honour loved ones who weren’t as fortunate.

“It’s my badge of honour and strength,” Davidson writes of her tattoo on Facebook. “It reminds me every day of the battles that I’ve overcome. I’ve won this war and hopefully I’ve beat it completely. My tattoo symbolizes a transformation, my metamorphosis, like a butterfly I changed on the outside but remained the same on the inside,” she explains.

Since uploading her photo to Facebook, Davidson’s image and story have gone viral, generating more than 700,000 “likes” and receiving 95,000 shares across the social media site. And so far, Facebook’s arbitrary nudity police have left the image up, many believe that this is a definite improvement over the furor caused when they removed a similar image of a tattooed cancer survivor’s bare chest in February. Whether the image stays put or not, Davidson has already derived great satisfaction from the messages of love and support that have poured in as a result of her bravery, strength and vulnerability. She plans to carry that strength forward this summer as she weds her fiancé, all the while knowing that her cancer could return.

I don’t have any plans to have my stomach tattooed in the near future, but I have great respect and admiration for Kelly Davidson. She stands as an inspiration to women who are fighting breast, ovarian or uterine cancer.


Kelly Davidson’s chest is a work of art.