Questions to Ask

Can You Be More Active Against Cancer?

Ask yourself these questions.

1. Am I doing everything that my medical team suggests?

2. Am I doing everything that makes sense to support my health generally? This is called “self-care”.

3. Am I eating well, sleeping as well as I can, and exercising as well as I can?

4. Am I addressing my emotional and spiritual needs? Do I have support?

5. If I could take one step towards better self-care today, it would be to …

6. If I start to exercise better, then I will feel more…

Exercise for Peace of Mind

Nancy Brennan Waterskiing During Cancer Treatment

Waterskiing in Chemo Summer

Forget for a minute that exercise is good for you and good for your health. Forget for a minute that if you are a cancer patient, exercise may likely help your cancer treatment be better tolerated and more effective, and that it may even help your long-term recovery in significant ways. Forget that exercise can boost your immune system, help your body fight inflammatory cellular processes in ways that are “anti-cancer”, and forget that exercise can mitigate side effects like nausea, fatigue and low mood.

Bear with me, and forget that exercise is being haled as the “wonder drug” by British medical experts in a recent report. Nevermind that many cancer treatment centers are formally starting to help cancer patients exercise in oncology rehab or other physical therapy programs. Forget that the American College of Sports Medicine’s expert panel, in 2010, emphasized to onocologists that patients should: “Avoid inacitivity.”

Let’s look beyond the medical benefits of exercise for a moment. Even those benefits are supremely important, let’s think about something else: that exercise can be restorative, peaceful, joyful and fun for you—even during cancer treatment. Exercise and cancer treatment go together like a hot summer day and a cool lake to swim in, or like a beautiful outdoor breeze and a long walk. Let’s talk about how exercise can help your peace of mind and steel you to be courageous, hopeful and optimistic as you fight cancer.

I was asked once: “what was the worst part of having cancer?” I didn’t know where to start. If you have cancer or have had cancer, you know your own private list of sorrows, suffering, fears, and changed realities. I don’t need to tell you cancer sucks. However, the best part of the cancer challenge, for me, was that I found out how much exercise could help me cope in the moment. Being active made me handle it the best that I could. Day by day, I found a sanctuary where I had some measure of control over how I felt, some luck finding a time where I felt “like myself”, some bodily pleasure instead of pain, and some fun instead of terror. I also found some smiles, sweat, and a sense that I was strong enough to endure and get beyond cancer.

Your doctor, unless you are very lucky, is not likely to understand all the ways that exercise, such as a slow, short walk, with your arms swinging and heartrate up a little, can help you get through cancer with your spirit strengthened, not weakened. Your doctors may care enormously about your blood counts, your chemo cocktails, your treatment options, and your prognosis. They are trying their best to save your life. It really isn’t their place to try to save your soul, your sanity, your hope, your state of mind, and your ability to cope. You have to admit it: you are in charge of how you handle your cancer challenge. Exercise can be the missing tool to help you “keep it together” the best that you can mentally and emotionally. This isn’t measurable, but it is truly marvelous when exercise helps you cope.

When I went walking or for a swim, I felt some peace. I tried to draw strength from the movements. I listened to and looked at the beauty of the nature around me. I tapped into the power of life. When I was out walking, I felt my heart beating, and I applauded it for its strength. When I walked up hills, I felt my legs power and appreciated them. Breathing deeply, I felt the power of my lungs. I felt alive, not half-scared and half-scarred. Just alive.

Exercise was there for me. Even if I was tired, a bit anemic, or concerned about some nasty “side effects du jour.” As long as I was exercising safely, I partook. Slowing down, easing up, not going far or fast: Any exercise period of 15 minutes or more seemed to re-set the day’s mood. A little aerobic exercise, some yoga, or some strengthening exercise knit me back together with better resolve, a better mood, and a better quality of life. Even if exercise was neutral in terms of how it affected your disease outcome, I would tell everyone to exercise a little bit if they were a cancer patient, just to help themselves get through the ordeal in better mental –and physical—shape.

But, bonus! Exercise can positively affect what the professionals call “your disease outcome”—and what you may call “your life.” While the medical professionals are ramping up to accommodate cancer patients who need to exercise, don’t let their technical expertise make you lose sight of the lovely way that exercise can soothe your soul during a crisis and keep you emotionally strong. Come on. Take a walk. Go get some air, for all the reasons the doctors want you to exercise and for all the extra reasons that also count: You’ll feel better if you do.

Exercise is Natural

From the book, Active Against Cancer, copyright Nancy S. Brennan, all rights reserved.

“I love to see the transformation of people’s spirits–and health–as they become more fit and more accustomed to exercise. I believe that exercise can help turn around anyone’s health and life. Exercise is just natural in a way that sitting at a desk, in a car, or on our couches is not. You know it and I know it. This is a good time to act like your life depends on it!”

Exceptional Cancer Recovery

What does it mean when someone survives cancer against great odds?

Greater minds than mind have pondered the question. Bernie Siegel, MD, for one, focused much of his good work on studying and helping “exception cancer patients.” If patients had defied great odds against them, and recovered from cancer despite very poor prognoses, what could medicine learn from their stories?

He looked for what they might have in common with each other. That effort made some people uneasy, I think. Why focus so much on people who have beat long odds? Aren’t you in danger of providing false hope to others who may not be able to also beat long odds? I think there are two questions there. Let’s go one at a time.

Noticing what exceptional cancer recovery stories have in common with each other, to me, is a great effort. Most clinicians, and most cancer patients, already know that one’s “odds” are not really the same as a prediction. A certain chance of recurrence is not a forecast. When the weather reporter says that there is a 50% chance of rain, we don’t really know anything much. When your “odds” for a recovery are neither dismal nor terrific, I would argue that you also don’t know much.

On the other hand, if someone can determine WHY a certain number of people with terrible prognoses will walk away back to good health, well, that is a valiant search, I think, for useful information.

In my book, Active Against Cancer, I profiled a cancer patient recovery story that is under the heading of “exceptional” for sure. Helene Neville, who is in her early 50s now, had brain cancer, and many years ago was told to put her affairs in order. Her surgeries and treatments were at an end. She was told she was dying. The details are in her profile in my book, or you can look up more about her on her website, here, at

Helene forgot to go home and quit on her life. Instead, she went running. And she ran a marathon on precious little training. And then she kept on running… all the way back to good health.

Putting her story of remarkable recovery in my book, Active Against Cancer, was a bit of a gamble. Some medical doctors consider such stories to be dangerous and to be misleading. Was I trying to claim that all readers of my book should go run marathons and they would be saved from terminal cancer? No. Was I trying to say that exercise “cured” Helene? No. Was I making a point that extremely long runs had extraordinary merit? No. So what was my point?

My point was that we don’t know why Helene’s cancer recovery story turned out so positively. We do know that it’s interesting. She is a model of fitness, now, and ran across the country in 2010. Ran across the country. In about three months. At age 50 or so. Um, hello, fitness role model? She’s a nurse and she publicizes her belief that medical professionals should be healthier in their fitness habits. Helene is a marvel and worth reading about.

But let me be clear: I’m not telling anyone to try to duplicate her recovery by running a marathon against doctors’ advice or when un-fit, un-well and un-ready. My book is very measured in what is recommended for exercise volume for cancer patients. Don’t overdo it. Don’t get fatigued. Don’t exhaust yourself. A half an hour of walking is a valid goal during treatment. So is ten minutes of walking one day or a little yoga or a little light weight-lifting. I defer to the American College of Sports Medicine, their recommendations, and those of ACS and others. Ask your doctor what is right for you. Get help from a physical therapist or trainer, or better yet, from a hospital-based cancer rehab program. Don’t wing it and don’t go overboard.

But if you want to have hope, feel free. One time during my treatment, a friend was pushing me to answer what my “realistic” odds were. I think she was skeptical that I was going to be okay. I was feeling optmistic. Again, she pushed: “But realistically, what are your odds?”

“Realism is sometimes over-rated. I have all the hope in the world. It works better for me that way.”

So if you want to, have all the hope in the world. And if you are in a tough spot, with your doctor telling you that your time is up, but a little voice inside your head gives an idea for how to fight for your life and health instead; or if there’s nothing else “they” can do for you, but you have something that you think that you can do for yourself; or if there’s nothing left to lose, and everything to gain; well, remember that sometimes inexplicably good things do happen. Hope is not in limited supply. Dig in.

Ask the Author: May I See Your Credentials?

Here is my imagined introduction to an upcoming talk about Active Against Cancer.

“Hi. My name is Nancy Brennan and I’m the author of ‘Active Against Cancer‘.

I’m a cancer survivor and an athletic person who researched the subject of exercise and cancer recovery to help other cancer survivors know why to exercise and how to be effective. I have no special degrees or credentials in the field of physical therapy, sports medicine or oncology rehab.”

“So why did I feel that I had the right to write this book?”

“Because exercise has great medical value to cancer patients and I wanted them to know what the experts have been saying, recently, loud and clear, about its value.”

“Because I’ve been a successful, fit recreational athlete for almost 50 years. I’ve learned a few tricks about workouts, motivation, habits, beliefs, and nitty gritty physiology of exercise. I also vetted the book with an MD/oncologist and a physical therapist/world-class athlete so that I could be sure that I had my facts straight.”

While I know everyone’s experience won’t be identical to mine with my cancer ordeal, I do have a cancer survivor’s perspective on what it’s like to exercise during treatment. I know what it’s like to want to go for a walk for your health on the day after your chemo infusion. I know about the stress of cancer treatment and how exercise can be an ally, if only you don’t push yourself too hard.”

I’m also a good writer who did good research; a writer who was a medical copyeditor; a writer who was a biology major and whose father was a physician. Writing my book, my biggest fear was of overstepping and writing anything false or dangerous to anyone. I made sure that I was quoting expert sources and not playing at being a doctor.

And, in the end, I wrote my book because I care. I couldn’t find a deeply encouraging book out there and I thought that there should be one.

Exercise has genuine medical value to cancer patients, but ultimately, exercise is natural, normal and something that we can each trust our bodies to do, within common sense bounds, even if we are cancer patients.”


Move More, Heal Better

It happened today while I was running. Suddenly, I knew how to summarize two years of research about exercise and cancer recovery:

“Move more, heal better.”

That’s it. Move more, heal better.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you should run up a mountain during cancer treatment, but it means that you should do what you can, appropriately, to stay active as you recover from cancer.

Move more? How much is that? More than not at all. More than a little. More means at least you will move around a little every day, most days. More = not sitting or lying still all day if you can possibly do more than that.

If you are struggling with anemia or side effects of other kinds, moving a little might mean doing 5 yoga postures, doing a little bit of strength work with a stretchy band (Thera-bands) and walking to the end of the block and back. You might be able to dance around your living room or walk the dog. You might be able to swim, even slowly with rests, or float in the pool on a noodle and move your legs.

And if you move more, you will heal better.

You can read my book Active Against Cancer for more details on why that is and on how to do so safely and enjoyably.

Strength on your journey, peace on your path,


Long distance thoughts

I set out for a long run, recently, and remembered one of the virtues of a long run: pure relaxation. Planning to run an hour makes it automatic for me to relax for the first five, ten, twenty minutes. There is no pressure to do anything but find a comfortable “go all day” rhythm and relax my mind and body. Because of the distance involved, the first mile is just a happy warm-up and goes by quickly.

It’s not unlike taking a trip in the car. If you plan to go across town quickly on a short trip, it can seem to drag on because in your mind “it shouldn’t take long.” But if you plan to drive for, say, six hours to start your vacation, the first hour will go by in a snap.

So, this got me thinking two things. One: running or exercising for a long duration is easier than you might think. The mind and the body make adjustments. If not the first time, then with a little practice, it will happen that you relax into a long outing. Stay in the moment; don’t worry about how far you have yet to go.

Second thing: Cancer recovery is a long outing, an endurance event, a trip far from your normal life habits. So, too, perhaps in cancer recovery there is a need to relax as much as you can. Pace yourself to go easily. Don’t worry about how long it will all take; just stay in the moment.

That’s my thought for the day. I’m wishing all of you in cancer recovery to build up endurance and find a way to relax during your cancer challenge. Stay hopeful in the moment and try to find the positives in every day, as you make your way back to health.