Doing what you can during breast cancer treatment

Gym time: (Top row L to R) Ann Thorson, Lisa Gnass, Cindy Krueger, (Bottom row L to R) Kathi Shipley and Pam Hardy. Photo by : Jessica Corson, J&T Corson Photography

No one ever expects to get breast cancer. Certainly not Kathi Shipley, a 43-year-old triathlon coach and avid marathon and triathlon participant; or Lisa Gnass, a 37-year-old who was too young for annual mammograms; or Pam Hardy who was physically active before her first bout with breast cancer at age 48, significantly ramped up her workouts after recovery, then was diagnosed with cancer in her other breast eight years later. “As a result of my diagnoses, I realized that cancer can strike anyone, no matter what their lifestyle,” says Hardy.

Research indicates that a healthy lifestyle decreases the risk of many chronic diseases, including several types of cancer. And being healthy and fit may help people recover from illness more quickly. But since there are many potential risk factors for breast cancer, it doesn’t seem to discriminate. About 12 percent of U.S. women who reach the age of 80 will develop invasive breast cancer. And advanced breast cancer in women between the ages of 25 and 39 has doubled over the past 30 years—scientists speculate that the culprits may be a modifiable lifestyle-related risk factor and/or environmental risk factors.

Shipley, a past Fit Feature, was diagnosed this spring. She suggested an article about how to stay healthy and fit while fighting breast cancer and recommended several ladies who are dealing with this situation. “Unfortunately, there are many of us,” she says.

Each spoke about how physical activity is a saving grace before, during and after treatment. In the past, cancer patients were advised to rest and avoid exercise. But a recent review of the research found that exercise during and after treatment is safe and beneficial; and an expert panel of the American College of Sports Medicine released guidelines in 2010 recommending most types of physical activity for cancer patients—tailored to each individual. Studies show that exercise may reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence and maintain lean body mass which can contribute to increased strength and wellbeing.

The ladies also emphasized the importance of doing what they’re physically able to do, not pushing themselves to do more, and not feeling guilty about needing to rest. Coping with the treatment’s physical and mental side effects and the resulting change in lifestyle is difficult, therefore, identifying a group of supportive friends and family members immediately after diagnosis is essential, as is allowing them to help. “Food, by far, is super helpful,” says Shipley.

At first, Shipley had hoped to continue to coach, train, and compete in a half Ironman while on chemo. When nausea and fatigue set in, goal modification was in order. “It’s very frustrating because I’m used to being such a get-up-and-go kind of gal!” says Shipley. “I’m trying to be kind and gentle to myself and be OK with not being the super strong athlete, but the healthiest human I can be through this process—that includes sleeping, eating, exercising as often and possible and spending quality time [with loved ones]. Sometimes the best thing is to work out; sometimes it’s best to dial it back and take a walk and rest.”

Gnass, who was diagnosed last fall with an aggressive form of breast cancer, began working with a personal trainer weeks before she started chemo so she would be as healthy as possible at the get-go. The dose-dense chemo makes her very sick, so she adjusts her activity accordingly. “It’s not always easy,” she says. “But don’t get discouraged: Do what you can without guilt.” Gnass tries to keep her energy up by getting a good night’s sleep and plenty of rest so she can keep living her life.

Hardy, who is undergoing chemotherapy for her second breast cancer, found that personal training made her too tired but that walking, and yoga in particular, helps her feel better. “If I get tired during yoga class, I just lie down on the mat and rest,” she says.

Cindy Krueger, who was diagnosed three years ago with stage 2 breast cancer, also found that walking, stretching and yoga were the best activities for her during treatment—and also now that she’s experiencing peripheral neuropathy. Looking like a “normal” person also helped. “When I looked better, I felt better,” says Krueger, who sported four different chic wigs.

Ann Thorsen, 57, was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in fall 2000 and had a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. Visualization techniques helped keep her spirits up and reduced side effects. After recovering, Thorsen joined MSU’s Pink Ribbon Crew. “Rowing has been a true life-changer for me,” she says. “And I don’t say that lightly.” Thorsen rows nearly every day during the summer and attends fitness classes in the off-season.

These ladies discovered that the key to a smoother recovery is enlisting a support group, including themselves. “I’ve been coaching people for some time,” says Shipley. “But when I have to use coaching on myself, it’s hard to know what I need and what’s best. It’s important to be in tune and honest with yourself about what you can do.”

Helpful resources

  • An online resource to help family and friends know how to help those in need with meals, transportation, childcare, grocery shopping, etc.
  • Helen Palmer Image Recovery Center, St. Mary Mercy Hospital, Livonia

Classes/Support Groups:

  • Turning Point: A series of fitness and yoga programs for breast cancer survivors held at the Lansing YMCA branches. Contact Joy Berwald, 517-827-9677 or
  • Healthy Steps: An exercise class in Lansing for breast cancer survivors. Contact Karen Bastien, 517-980-3331.
  • Pink Ribbon Crew: A rowing team led by expert instructors and funded by MSU. Participation is free and open to breast cancer survivors with a doctor’s clearance and basic swimming skills. No previous rowing experience needed; instruction and coaching provided. Contact: Amy Pennington, 517-749-1002,


Karen Giles-Smith, MS, RD, is a freelance writer and health/wellness coach based in Mason, MI. Visit her and


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