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Returning to Sports During and After Cancer

Sometimes cancer treatment means taking a break from sports and other activities.

In some cases, you can return after treatment. In other cases, it might be time to start something new.

Therapies such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and bone marrow transplant help treat cancer. But they can cause changes in your body. It may take some time to adjust.

Resuming or starting new activities looks a little different for each person. There aren’t general guidelines about returning to physical activities after cancer. Scientists continue to study the effects of exercise and play after cancer treatment.

Being physically active is possible. But you may benefit from attending rehabilitation or individual sports classes rather than general group ones. Talk to your care team about safe ways you can return to sports or other physical activities.

Nick discusses his diagnosis, what life was like during treatment, and how it felt to get back to school and basketball.

Here are things to talk about with your care team:

  • How treatment has affected you
  • Your growth and development
  • Ways to prevent or decrease the risk of injury
Young man running on track field

Everyone is different when it comes to physical activity during and after cancer treatment. Talk to your care team about what's best for you.

How Does Cancer Treatment Affect the Body?

The effects of cancer treatment depend on the type of therapy.

  • Surgery: Surgery may affect specific parts of the body. That may include the cancer site and the healthy tissue around it. This may affect growth and development. When returning to activity, follow the advice of your surgeon.
  • Radiation: The effect of radiation therapy depends on where the radiation is targeted. It can also cause overall fatigue.
  • Chemotherapy: The effect of chemotherapy varies depending on the medicines used. For example, some may cause fatigue or peripheral neuropathy. Others may cause nausea and vomiting or affect heart and lung function.

Treatments may affect fitness, endurance, and balance. It’s important to know your limits and take them into account.

Benefits of Exercise and Physical Activity

Benefits may vary based on the type and stage of cancer, treatment, or earlier physical activity levels.

Benefits may include:

  • Increased confidence
  • Improved cardiovascular fitness
  • Stronger muscles
  • Better bone health
  • Improved thinking and learning skills
  • Better sleep
  • Decrease in excess weight

You may feel limited by your health or performance in a particular sport. But be as active as possible.

Physical and Mental Development

Children and teens continue to grow and develop physically and mentally. Through age 11 or so, they develop skills that involve whole body movement. These skills include running, skipping, and climbing. Treatment and the age at diagnosis can affect development.

Children learn how to move their bodies and coordinate movement. This builds the foundation for more specialized skills needed for individual sports.

During the pre-teen or teen years, children go through a growth spurt. This occurs between ages 10–12 years for girls and 12–14 years for boys.

Children and teens may be less coordinated and forget how to move. They can be more prone to injury.

Preventing Injury

Before returning to sports, it’s important to understand how to decrease risk of injury.

Here are some ways to decrease your risk of injury:

  • Play and practice time to develop skills
  • Muscle strength and flexibility
  • Movement mechanics

As children mature, they can begin more sport-specific tasks.

Make sure to:

  • Warm up the body by stretching before activity or sports.
  • Take breaks.
  • Cool down afterward.
  • Get plenty of rest between activities.
  • Do a variety of activities that include aerobic, muscle-strengthening, and bone-strengthening movement. Check out the Move Your Way Activity Planner for ideas.
Three small children moving together during dance class.

Stretching and warming up before physical activity helps to prevent injury.

What Research Says About Returning to Sports After Cancer

Current research suggests most children and teens can safely return to physical education classes and sports. Studies show that:

  • Exercise during and after a bone marrow transplant can help increase strength, reduce pain, and improve mood.
  • Exercise during and after treatment in patients with solid tumors, which includes bone cancer, can help increase strength, boost aerobic capacity, and improve quality of life.
  • Sports-related complications are rare in children with brain tumors. These children do not appear to be at a higher risk of injury compared to other children. Read more about return to play after brain tumor surgery in children.

Seek the Guidance of a Physical Therapist

A physical therapist can help you with endurance, coordination, strength, and balance.

Talk with your care provider and set goals for activity. Be safe. Be smart. Know that being active is possible.

Learn more about studies about physical exercise during and after treatment:

 

Key Points

  • Sometimes cancer treatment means taking a break from sports and other activities.
  • Treatments may affect fitness, endurance, and balance. It’s important to know your limits and take them into account.
  • Children and teens may be less coordinated and forget how to move. They can be more prone to injury.
  • Before returning to sports, it’s important to understand how to decrease risk of injury.
  • Current research suggests most children and teens can safely return to physical education classes and sports.
  • A physical therapist can help you. There is an activity out there for everyone.

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Reviewed: February 2022