October is breast cancer awareness month.  With the current ongoing global events, it is more important than ever to shine a light on awareness of early cancer detection, diagnosis, early treatment and rehab. Each month in the UK around 5000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer.

In this blog, we will be talking about all things Pilates and breast cancer. We’ll be discussing how exercise and Pilates can help you prevent breast cancer, cope with treatment, and aid rehabilitation after surgery to achieve your goals.

Breast cancer remains the most common cancer in women, in the UK 1 in 7 women will get breast cancer at some point in their lives. However, 25% of those cases are preventable with the right measures in place. The numbers of women surviving breast cancer are increasing each year with 90% surviving to 5 years and 50% to ten years.

Despite the known benefits of exercise, the majority of cancer survivors are not meeting the NHS guidelines for physical activity.  Cancer rehab can be beneficial to all stages of cancer care as well as prevent cancer recurrence.

Sadly, cancer does not only directly affect the part of the body it is detected in.  The effects of treatment and potential surgery in breast cancer are wide-ranging affecting the whole body.  Survival is the beginning; we then need to ensure that quality of life is returned.  Breast cancer and its treatment can cause;

All of these can be helped with physiotherapy, exercise and clinical Pilates.

In the next part of this article, we’ll be highlighting some interesting facts and statistics of how exercise can help you both physically and psychologically and how Pilates can be part of your exercise plan.

We will also give you some exercise ideas that you can include in your regular schedule whether you have been diagnosed with breast cancer or not.

Facts about breast cancer and exercise


The effect exercise has on the body with relation to cancer is significant. If we could take exercise as a pill it would be the most commonly prescribed pill in the world.  There are multiple ways in which exercise affects the body physically and psychologically which help in the fight against breast cancer.

Physical activity can help reduce the risk of breast cancer by up to 30%

Physical activity lowers levels of circulating hormones such as oestrogen, androgen and insulin, and certain growth factors. Increased levels of these hormones have been associated with breast cancer.  Being active also helps to support your body’s natural immune function.

It is thought that exercise also encourages other lifestyle changes that reduce the risk of cancer.  The other benefit of exercise is that it helps with reducing stress levels and weight which also has a positive effect on reducing the risk of cancer.

In women, higher intensity exercise helps more and ideally should be done 3-5 hours per week.  For example, dancing has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer.

Exercise can enhance the curative effects of cancer treatment

Exercise not only reduces the toxic side effects of cancer treatment but actually improves the therapeutic effect.  This happens in a variety of ways;

  • Improved blood flow and vascular structure assisting in the effect of chemotherapy drugs.
  • Improved cancer cell apoptosis (cell death)
  • Increased efficiency of radiotherapy

Exercise reduces the adverse side effects of treatment

Cancer treatment such as chemotherapy can cause negative side effects such as fatigue, reduced bone density, muscle weakness, pain and changes in our cognition.

Studies have shown that including exercise has a positive effect on pain levels and body composition.  This means that more muscle and bone mass were maintained.

When we are fatigued we often think that we must rest and this is often encouraged in people going through cancer treatment.  In fact, research shows that physical exercise can significantly reduce cancer treatment related fatigue.  This effect was seen both post-operatively and during chemotherapy.

Exercise has also been shown to improve cognitive function of the brain even during cancer treatment.

In breast cancer specifically, exercise can reduce cardiac toxicity which can be caused by a particular type of treatment (endocrine therapy).

Exercise improves cancer prognosis

For breast cancer, regular moderate exercise can improve survival rates.  This is also because exercise helps to promote other positive lifestyle changes.

Regular physical exercise can reduce the risk of death from breast cancer by up to 40%.  This is the biggest effect of any lifestyle change.  Exercise is the most proven method to prevent return of breast cancer.

How can Pilates help breast cancer survivors?


Pilates is a great form of exercise that can help breast cancer survivors. Clinical Pilates in particularly, is the application of the Pilates method for medical patients.

Pilates looks at the body as a whole not just the one area that may be affected by the disease.  It can be used at all stages of care including preventative, during treatment, post operatively and throughout your recovery.

Breast cancer surgery such as mastectomy and breast reconstruction can affect the shoulder joint, spinal mobility, posture and core muscle strength.

Using the Pilates equipment in combination with home exercises on the mat and one to one advice and education from your instructor, Pilates can;

  • Restore range of movement
  • Increase muscle strength
  • Improve breathing patterns
  • Improve posture
  • Improve balance
  • Improve whole body coordination
  • Help with mindfulness and relaxation
  • Help to relieve fears and anxiety
  • Increase self-care and confidence
  • Improve body confidence

What exercise should I do for breast cancer?

tying up laces for exercise for breast cancer

The exercise guidelines are the same for breast cancer as for the general population.  Ideally 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise including 2-3 sessions of strength exercises.

It has been shown in breast cancer treatment that 3 hours per week of higher intensity exercise may be more beneficial.

Exercise can be anything you enjoy doing, we are more likely to stick to the guidelines if we are enjoying ourselves. Find something that you love to do or perhaps that you can do with others so that you have the social support as well.

Pilates is a great form of strength training and adding in some weighted exercise will bring even more benefit.

If you are unsure where to start, find a specialist exercise practitioner who can advise you.  The Pinc and Steel programme is a good place to find cancer trained physios who can advise on cancer rehab at all stages.

At Complete Pilates, we offer one to one assessment either in our studios or online via Zoom.  We can then take you through an appropriate programme for your needs and give you advice on other forms of exercise to include.  We can also advise on how to recover effectively after surgery taking into account your scars and potential further radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

There is so much that you can do to help your recovery and we are here to help.


Pilates for women with breast cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Complementary Therapies in Medicine Dec 2018

Roles and molecular mechanisms of physical exercise in cancer prevention and treatment

Journal of sport and health science in July 2020

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Education is key:

These blogs are designed to give information to everyone, however, it is important to remember that everyone is different! If you have not seen one of our therapists and have any questions about injuries, what you have read or whether this may be useful to you, please just ask. We are more than happy to help anyone and point you in the right direction. Our biggest belief is that education is key. The more you understand about your injury, illness and movement, the more you are likely to improve.

If you are not sure whether this is for you, simply get in touch. We are here to help!