How can I get my mother, who has breast cancer, to be more active so she won't lose muscle strength?

9 answers | Last updated: Sep 14, 2017
A fellow caregiver asked...
My 73-year-old mother, who has breast cancer, is getting weaker, and her doctor wants her to exercise and stay active. But when I suggest to her that she needs to exercise, she refuses, saying she's too tired. I'm worried that she's losing muscle strength. What can I say or do to get her moving again?

Expert Answers

Bonnie Bajorek Daneker is author and creator of the The Compassionate Caregiver's Series, which includes "The Compassionate Caregiver's Guide to Caring for Someone with Cancer," "The Journey of Grief," "Handbook on Hospice and Palliative Care," and other titles on cancer diagnosis and end of life. She speaks regularly at cancer research and support functions, including PANCAN and Cancer Survivor's Network. She is a former member of the Executive Committee of the CSN at St. Joseph's Hospital of Atlanta and the Georgia Chapter of the Lymphoma Research Foundation.

You can't make your mother exercise and shouldn't feel responsible if she doesn't listen to you -- or her doctor. But you can refuse to let the subject drop, even if it makes her uncomfortable, and that's the easiest path to take.

Remind her frequently that her medical professionals are recommending exercise, and she needs to try to follow their advice, no matter how hard it is. If possible, ask the doctor to talk to her about it again. The more she hears the message -- and the more people she hears it from -- the more it will get through.

One strategy is to have her doctor prescribe physical therapy. Then the physical therapist can get involved and recommend some gentle exercises to try at home.

If your doctor's staff can recommend exercise classes at a nearby wellness center or health club (many of which are offered free of charge for cancer patients), the buddy system works really well. Pair your mother up with another group member, and they can encourage each other and gauge each other's progress.

Be as encouraging as possible, and offer lots of choices. Your mother might like a beginning yoga or Tai Chi class. Acknowledge that taking a class might be scary for her the first time. If your schedule permits, offer to go with her to the class and participate yourself. (There are also some great exercise videos to try at home.)

The more you can make it seem like it's your mother's choice to get moving, the better. Cancer patients often feel powerless and out of control, but making choices -- even small ones -- can help your mother feel more in control.

If your mother is truly becoming inactive, you may have to stand firm and use tough love. There was one point when I was taking care of my father when he said he couldn't stand up to use the restroom and wanted me to bring him the urinal in bed. I said no, the doctor says you have to stand up and use your legs, or you'll lose the use of them altogether.

Bit by bit, we worked on sitting up, moving his legs, and taking a few steps. Taking three steps was a really big deal, and we celebrated with champagne when he got to 13 steps. Work on getting your mother moving one bit at a time, and acknowledge any progress she makes as a big accomplishment.

You can also use little rewards and motivators. With my dad, I kept some Sea Breeze astringent close by, and when he got sweaty from walking, I'd put some on the insides of his elbows and the backs of his knees to help him cool down. Sometimes I'd also give him a little leg and foot massage afterward. He really looked forward to these "mini spas," and it gave him something to look forward to after his hard work.

Community Answers

Beachgirl answered...

My parents joined the YMCA about 5 years ago because my father was having hip and knee problems after an accident. They started going several times a week and not only found it helped both of them feel better but they made friends as well. They now go to the heated pool every morning where there is a water therapy class as well as people who just go to soak and relax. Everyone is genuinely interested in each others' life updates and they are all very supportive of one another and even call each other if someone misses more than a couple days. It gives them something to do and something to look forward to. And since I live far away, I feel good about it, too.

I live in South Florida and have been an Occupational Therapy Assistant for 18 years.

Veggiegal answered...

My mother had breast cancer and was very tired from the radiation and medications.  We simply put her on a fresh fruit and vegetable diet (not cooked) as this builds the immune system back up.  No sugar or dairy products as cancer feeds off of them so I understand. 

I also have a friend whose father had colon cancer and he used the hallelujah diet and was healed ...praise God!  No more cancer. Information on this diet can be found on the internet.

Good luck and God Bless


Vegas702 answered...

First and foremost I will keep your mother in my prayers.  I am going to recommend something that you may want to try.  The only reason I recommend this product is because a lot of people with the same problem have had a  lot of success.  It is called Organo Gold with Ganoderma. Its comes in coffee and tea and gives you a lot of energy.  Please note this company makes no medical claims. Please go to and read the testimonials. I believe in this product so much because I hear the cancer stories, I hear the diabetes stories on a daily basis. I take the product and I want you to know my energy level has reached an all time high! My sister takes the product. While we make no medical claims Professional Athletes and
Medical Doctors to name a few across the country use this product. I am not trying to sell you anything. I have a mother and I can only imagine what you are going through. If you would like I can send you some samples to see if your Mother likes the coffee or tea and if her energy level comes up. Just contact me at my email address and I will put some in the mail to you asap. I wish my brother was still around as he passed away from Cancer in 2005 I would have given him the coffee and tea. Go to the link provided and read the following story. It will inspire you. For me it's not about selling anything I lost my brother to cancer and there is not a day that does not go by I don't think about him. I miss him so much. I want to share anything I feel will help someone who is fighting this horrible disease. When you contact me I will give you links to other success stories from people who use this Healthier Coffiee and Nutraceuticals caps all Organic. Good luck and God Bless you and your family. Again, I make no medical claims I can only tell you this product has helped me so much! I am a new person. So it's not about the money I can't say this enough.  If you would like me to contact you please contact me through my email.

Please go to

Vegas702 answered...

yes i do

A fellow caregiver answered...

I am a mother of one sweet 10 year old daughter and was diagnosed last year with breast cancer. I can appreciate fatigue and muscle loss, I have it and I feel as if I have not recovered from my chemotherapy and radiation. But here's what I suggest, tell her what YOU want. Like "Mom, I want to go for a walk with you and see the sunset" or "I want to share something with you". When my daughter looks at me with love and tenderness, and has a request, my heart breaks and I do my best for her, but I also enjoy it and share it with her. It's a win win situation. How can I loose or not enjoy it? Exercise can be such a chore for some of us - it's just not a priority in our lives. But share it, and it can become something more. If it becomes a routine, she can do it without you but you will always be her motivation. The first step is the hardest, it doesn't have to be overwhelming - start small and start with a different mission when others don't work. Good luck. And I hope you share many thoughts, dreams, sunrises and sunsets with her.

Marciamspt answered...

What a common difficulty!

I've dealt with elderly individuals in my home health care physical therapy career for 16 years now.

I have found that the best way to promote exercise to meet documented physical therapy goals is to work activity in to the daily routine.

Don't call it exercise... that seems to be a bad word after a certain age! Change inactivity into activity. How?

Have your loved one fold the laundry, peel the carrots, rinse or dry the dishes, walk with you to get the mail, get their own glass of water etc etc... the list goes on but you get the idea... just create helpful options of activity.

Exercise is like punishment to many...but being helpful (for some if not most) is rewarding... so sneak the E word into doing things together... this can be a great time to build relationships too!

And, before you think I'm way out in left field, I know how difficult it can be to work with older people... I've experienced it and I've seen family interaction for years... it's not easy... Godspeed!

Marcia Oliver MSPT, CPT

Stilldreamin' answered...

How do you start to exercise when you can hardly walk some days? I'm more scared of being unable to get around than I am of the cancer finally killing me. Some days of course are better than others but none are all that great. I was thinking of going to an exercise class but I've been losing my balance lately at times, so I don't think I can stand during a class. Does anyone have any ideas? Thank you. Oh, I'm only 61 years old.

Jeannetta answered...

I'm 80 years old & have had cancer twice. I start exercising before I get out of bed. You can put your feet flat on the bed, then straighten one leg & slowly lift it up as high as you can. Then slowly put it down. After about 10 lifts, put the foot flat on the bed & do the same with the other leg. That's one of several exercises I do in bed & now I'm using 2 lb. weights. Try to stop thinking about the tiredness. Think about what you will be able to do when you recover.If there's a warm water pool you could get to, they're wonderful. Just walking in warm water really builds muscle. Or tell your regular doctor about your problems & he might prescribe physical therapy. Exercise will make you feel better. Stick with it, it's worth it.

Another idea; Get a video of Tai Chi or Qui Gong. You may not be able to do it at first but keep trying. Or take yoga classes. Ask if they do chair yoga. Our local Senior Center sometimes has Chair Yoga Classes. God Bless You