4 Ways to Regain Muscle Mass After Cancer

by Brian English

Muscle loss as the result of cancer treatment can make a serious dent in your quality of life. Most patients will have to endure the extreme fatigue associated with muscle loss. But it doesn’t just keep you from returning to your daily routine – it sneaks up on you.

4 Ways To Regain Muscle Mass After Cancer

WhatNext Community Manager, GregP_WN remembers trying to split wood like he did before his treatment, and only being able to get through six logs. “My mind said, ‘Sure you can do it,’ but my body said, ‘waaaiiiit a minute,’ he writes. “It took me a year or so to work up to being able to do what I could before.”

Splitting Wood

Muscle loss can be a vicious cycle. The weakness and tiredness that it causes hardly inspire you to get out and exercise. So instead of working to regain muscle, you sleep or sit, further increasing muscle atrophy. What’s more, since radiation and chemo can lead to mouth sores and nausea, resulting in a loss of appetite, less eating – and even more muscle loss.

But it’s possible to treat and manage muscle loss and avoid dealing with that extreme fatigue for long. Keeping your strength up can help you feel better as you continue treatment, and keep your daily routine from becoming an arduous struggle. It’s not easy, but it’s doable.

For WhatNexter Ejourneys, the answer was to never let muscle loss get started. “I exercised all through chemo and radiation,” she writes. “Which helped, even when I did it at reduced intensity.”

Whether you never stop exercising or are trying to get back on the proverbial horse after treatment, the importance of staying active and working to regain any lost muscle is crucial. Keeping fit and getting your muscle mass back can help improve your mood, boost your self-confidence, and – most importantly – reduce the fatigue that can lead to general malaise and couch potato-ing.

IKickedIt from WhatNext writes that she has “built my endurance back at the gym to do cardio for an hour.”
“I learned how to ride a bike again which was huge,” she writes. “I'm hoping to be able to ice skate again, and perhaps even wear heels again. I get frustrated, but I savor the accomplishments and vow to keep trying.”
For cancer patients, it’s important to consult with your doctor before embarking on any exercise regimen. But along with the medications you’re taking, these are 4 basic tips top help you get back in the swing of things, building back the muscle that you’ll need as part of your recovery.

1) Eat More Protein

During treatment, eating probably won’t be high on your list of priorities. Your oncologist may prescribe medicines to help you overcome your loss of appetite, such as anti-nausea and steroidal drugs. Once this hurdle has been overcome, a protein-rich diet will help protect lean body mass. Beef, pork, poultry are, of course, great sources of protein. In addition, tofu and soy nuts can help bolster your protein intake. But you can also add dairy products like Greek yogurt.

High Protein Foods

WhatNexter BoiseB writes that “increasing protein in my diet has helped me build muscle strength”

“Eating a variety of beans has been my way of doing this,” BoiseB asserts. “Calcium, potassium, and magnesium are minerals essential to muscle and bone health so working those into your diet is essential.

2) Up Your Calories


If you’ve ever been looking for an excuse to eat, this is it. Even if your appetite is an issue, try eating smaller and more frequent meals to increase the amount of calories that you’re putting into your body. Milkshakes and smoothies go down easy, taste great, and are loaded with calories. What’s more, you can mix protein powder into them for an added boost.

Eating Lots Of Spaghetti

3) Start Back Slowly


Remember: while some of the physical drop off you’re experiencing is the result of cancer; some is the result of age. Your body has changed. You won’t be able to immediately resume the exercise you’ve been doing for years. If you’re weak already, just begin with three or four minutes of walking time, and then build up from there. Maybe kick things off by doing exercises while sitting in a chair. And don’t start with weights – start by just lifting your arms. It may come back slowly or quickly, but you’ve got to crawl before you sprint.

Start Exercising

4) Keep a Diary


One major source of encouragement can keeping a record of your activity so you can see how quickly you’re bouncing back.

“One thing I do is to keep track of progress,” writes WhatNexter KenMacOak. “Whenever I feel frustrated at the pace of my progress, I look at where I was a while ago. While I am not back to where I was, I am so much stronger and have better stamina than I did last year … Keep plugging away, and try not to get frustrated.”

Workout Log

For more tips on getting your muscle mass back, ask your oncologist for a referral to a physical or occupational therapist if those professionals are not already part of your care team. A nutritionist can also provide additional guidance.

What have you done to get your muscle back after cancer? Share your tips with everyone!

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