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Regaining Strength After Chemo: Aftercare Tips and Expectations

Medically reviewed by Todd Gersten, M.D.
Posted on April 19, 2022

Going through chemotherapy for lung cancer treatment is tough on your body, but you can regain your physical strength between chemotherapy sessions and after chemo ends. If you have multiple rounds of chemo ahead of you, take advantage of the breaks between sessions to regain some of your strength and minimize lasting side effects. Once you’re near the end of your treatment course, it’s time to start thinking about your long-term strength goals.

Regaining Strength Between Sessions

Chemotherapy is typically given in multiple cycles of about three to four weeks, with breaks in between. To keep your strength up during chemo, prioritize maintaining a healthy body weight. For some, that means safely losing weight. Others might try to stay at the same weight or gain weight. Finding strategies to get adequate nutrients (even when your appetite is poor) is essential to avoid malnutrition and muscle loss. Getting enough nutrients can also give you energy for physical activity.

Focus on Nutrition

Some ways to keep your strength and energy up through nutrition include:

  • Don’t restrict — Eat what you’re in the mood for, and don’t worry about indulgences. Sometimes, it’s more important to eat enough than to eat “right.”
  • Focus on protein — If you’re not getting a lot of protein from meat, fish, or eggs, ask to speak with an oncology dietitian. They can give you tips for incorporating more protein into your meals and snacks.
  • Get calories from drinks — Try smoothies or 100 percent juice instead of water to boost your calorie intake.
  • Avoid filling up on liquids during mealtimes — Drinking between meals rather than with meals can help you avoid feeling full too quickly at mealtimes.

When your appetite and taste start to come back, discuss your weight with your oncologist and health care team. Together, you can determine what your goals should be.

Move Your Muscles

Activating your muscles can help you maintain your physical strength and emotional well-being through chemo cycles. A physical therapist can help you incorporate safe resistance training into your exercise routine. This training can help you avoid a cycle where cancer-related fatigue leads to muscle strength loss, which leads to even more fatigue and strength loss.

Exercising through lung cancer treatment can make you feel better overall. However, some people should take extra precautions before beginning a strenuous exercise program. If you have balance issues, intense fatigue, or severe anemia, be sure to talk to your doctor first. Because your immune system may be temporarily suppressed from chemo, working out at home or outdoors can be a safer option than a public gym or fitness class.

Most people on chemo have good days and bad days. If you can’t seem to muster the motivation to be active every day, that’s OK. Strive for what you can manage. Some days, physical activity may look like yard work or a short walk around the block. “I have a modest regimen for exercise,” said one MyLungCancerTeam member, “but I have also been doing some heavy lifting all summer building a patio and then mowing the lawn.”

Building Strength Once Chemo Is Complete

Completing chemotherapy treatment is a significant milestone that should be celebrated. Once your doctor has cleared you, you should start thinking about renewing your physical strength through exercise.

The benefits of exercise cannot be overstated for lung cancer survivors. Working out can help reduce your risk of cancer recurrence, boost your energy levels, help you maintain a healthy weight, increase your independence and ability to take care of daily activities, and help you deal with the emotional toll of a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Strength Training Exercise

Your doctor or physical therapist may recommend a progressive overload strength training program. In these programs, you gradually increase your exercise intensity. This approach gives your body time to adapt while continuing to challenge your strength and endurance. By adding more repetitions or resistance to your workouts, you’ll continue to build strength and avoid plateaus.

If you have more energy after chemo, you shouldn’t necessarily rush into intense workouts. Consider starting with basic body weight exercises and meeting with a personal trainer to gauge your baseline fitness level. Writing down your workouts will help you keep track of your progress from week to week. Small steps add up over time, so focus on creating a consistent exercise habit rather than doing too much too soon.

Rest and Refuel

Remember to balance your physical activity with lots of rest. Fuel your body with the protein it needs to build muscle as you progress to harder workouts.

Stay Motivated

It’s important to acknowledge the challenges you’ve had to overcome during chemo, including the emotional challenges.

Although it will take time to recover physically, knowing that you had the resilience to persevere through chemo can boost your confidence and motivate you to improve your physical fitness. As you move beyond chemotherapy and into the next phase, let your inner strength propel you to a stronger self, both inside and out.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyLungCancerTeam is the social network for people with lung cancer and their loved ones. On MyLungCancerTeam, more than 5,800 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lung cancer.

Have you undergone chemotherapy for lung cancer? What has helped you maintain and rebuild your strength? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Posted on April 19, 2022
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Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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