Three people leap with joy in a gym

Cancer, Depression, and How Exercise Can Help

Cancer is only one part of your life. Don’t let it decide how happy you’re going to be. Fear and overwhelm are completely normal after a cancer diagnosis. There are ways to help manage depression and anxiety brought about by cancer, and they don’t all involve medication. Aren’t we taking enough? Exercise, research has found, can lower depression brought about by cancer.1

Being happy and healthy, even with cancer

It’s reasonable to say that cancer affects your mental health. And why not? You have been “delivered a blow.” It feels like a “death-knell.” “Your days are numbered.” “You’re not getting out of this alive.” I’m sure I missed a lot of sayings, but you get the point - you feel like you’re stuck with the only place to go is somewhere scary with lots of your dreams unfulfilled.

I know it’s scary. My sarcasm isn’t meant to diminish the reality as we see it at this moment. I poke fun so that my world doesn't seem so scary. If you take nothing else from this article, know this: you are awesome, you have worth, you can do more than you realize and I promise to stay with you the whole way.

You just have to promise to hold my hand. I get scared too.

Cancer-related depression is real and it's okay to feel this way

Cancer-related depression is real, it’s common and completely normal. It’s so normal, that if you weren’t completely bummed out by the load you’re carrying, other cancer patients would stage an intervention, just so that you would be on the same page with the rest of us. However, being depressed isn’t productive, so you need to find a way to manage it. Fear not - there are options.

Triage and talk when needed

If you’re feeling so overwhelmed that you feel no choice but to “end the pain before it gets worse,” STOP. Call 800-273-8255, or go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline where they have awesome people who just want to talk to you. I’m not a counselor, but if you have the need, you can email me or find me on social media if I’m somebody that you’d like to chat with.

Start small to make big gains

If you want to make big gains, you have to start small. I usually tell my athletes, if they want to get faster on race day, they have to slow down when they train. Life is the ultimate Ultra Marathon, so don’t sprint to the finish. You’ll never make it!

Pace yourself. Fuel. Hydrate. Massage. Adjust the parts that are chafing. Add lubrication when needed. Always bring extra socks. In case you’re lost, I just made an over-the-top road running metaphor.

The benefits of exercise for your health are discussed all over, and well-suited for other writings, but the healthier you are physically, the more emotionally adaptive and positive you will be. A research study found that the addition of moderate exercise just 3 days per week can decrease mild to moderate depression symptoms by as much as 47% over a 12-week period.1 If you had all the money in the world, how much would you pay to feel almost 50% better? I think it’s time to put on your walking shoes.

Pace yourself

You don’t need to start big. Take small steps. Talk to a trainer. Ask questions. Be consistent. When you fall down, get up and do it again.

Fuel and hydrate

This was supposed to be metaphorical, but in a very real way, you need to remember to eat well and drink hydrating fluids. I stick to foods that haven’t been prepared or processed as often as I can. Drink water. Coffee and beer are awesome, but they aren’t the best training tools when you’re starting to move, they’ll make you dehydrated - plus they make you pee a lot.

Massage and adjust the parts that are chafing.

Like most things, this can get harder before it gets easier. Keep your eye on the prize. Feeling better is a win. Remind yourself with every step, each stroke of the bike pedal, or one little splash in the pool, that you’re working on “happy.” On the days that you are sore or tired, take care of yourself with a little pampering, but DON’T STOP. On those days, slow down a little (just a little), work on those sore muscles, go to bed 20 minutes early, or even spoil yourself with a treat. You earned it!

But, by all means... keep moving forward.

Editor's Note: It is important to check with your healthcare team prior to starting or changing any physical routines.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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