Exercise is a Positive Prescription for Child Cancer Survivors


Parks full of children playing baseball, tossing Frisbees, and romping around a playground are as American as apple pie. Childhood cancer survivors can be among those active youngsters, reaping the benefits of exercise and youth sports by following post-treatment guidelines and keeping their doctors informed.

Exercise can even play a role during the treatment of some cancers. Physical activity is known to increase energy, improve mood, boost self-esteem, stimulate the immune system, and reduce symptoms of pain, diarrhea, and constipation. Post-treatment exercise can reduce the risk of cardiovascular effects, low bone density, and obesity, and overall improve a child or teen survivor’s quality of life.

“Physical activity is important for pediatric cancer survivors’ health and emotional well-being,” said Pam Gabris, a nurse and the Beyond the Cure coordinator for The National Children’s Cancer Society (NCCS). “Parents should work closely with their child’s doctors to gauge how much physical activity is right for their child, and monitor exercise programs and athletic involvement to maximize the benefits and monitor the child for late-term effects.”

Gabris cautioned, for example, that certain types of chemotherapy used in treating childhood cancer may lead to heart disease, which could then be aggravated by strenuous activity. Some survivors who have had adria drugs (doxorubicin and adriamycin, for example) can put themselves at a higher risk of heart damage by doing isometric exercises such as pull-ups and bench presses.

But most children and teen cancer survivors can follow the age-appropriate aerobic exercise recommendations for the general population of the same age, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, which developed exercise guidelines for cancer survivors. Aerobics are fine for most, although those with an increased risk of falling or bone fractures (such as survivors with peripheral neuropathy or bone metastases) should consider a non-weight-bearing activity, such as riding a stationary bicycle. Resistance exercise is also an important part of a post-treatment fitness routine, and can be done safely by cancer survivors.

Some treatment centers, like the Nationwide Children’s Hospital of Columbus, Ohio, even have in-house pediatric cancer exercise programs to help survivors and children in remission regain strength and confidence. Such programs are led by certified athletic trainers and focus on improving flexibility, muscle strength, power, balance, and agility.

For more information about helping a childhood cancer survivor start an exercise or sports program, visit Beyond the Cure at beyondthecure.org.