Why some women recovering from breast cancer exercise and some don’t

More clinicians and oncologists are recommending exercise as a strategy for reducing the side effects of treatment, speeding recovery and improving overall quality of life.

Unfortunately, new research indicates that while many cancer survivors do indeed follow medical advice and increase their physical activity levels soon after treatment, the majority do not.

A report by Jennifer Brunet and Catherine M. Sabiston of McGill University published in the latest issue of the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology has shed some light as to why this is.

Their research amongst women recovering from breast cancer, suggests that it is in part due to self-presentation, the way in which in which a person tries to influence the perception of their image.

They focused on this segment of the population because individuals who experience disease-related changes in appearance often move away from the socially prescribed ideal physique of being toned, thin and shapely.

Women who have been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer have endured many treatments with over 50% of them gaining weight and reporting other unfavourable changes in body composition

As a result, breast cancer survivors’ preoccupation with the way others perceive them may increase since appearance and weight are predominant concerns for women in general.

The findings showed that some of the study group positively engaged in physical activity based on the belief that it would help them to convey their desired image and influence how others perceive them by regulating their weight, improving their body tone and developing a social image of someone who is ‘fit’.

Conversely, there is also evidence that some avoided exercising if they are concerned about their ability to convey an attractive image in front of others.

Some women experience body-related anxiety as a result of the changes associated with breast cancer treatment and perceive that others negatively evaluate them as ‘lopsided,’ ‘mis-shapen,’ or ‘disfigured’.

These women may worry that others will negatively evaluate them and therefore avoid engaging in activities where their physique is on display in much the same way that overweight female exercisers avoided exercising in public.

The challenge facing exercise and medical professionals is how to convince those cancer survivors who are not exercising, that they will be treated sympathetically and with understanding but without being made to feel different to other gym users.

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