State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

Staying strong during chemo: Keeping active, having a solid support system make a difference

by on January 10, 2018 8:48 AM

Sharon Herman remembers feeling scared in late June 2011 after having been diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite just starting chemotherapy treatments, she mustered enough courage and strength to join her longtime team of friends to take part in the Centre County Relay for Life, just like she had for years. The relay is a benefit for the American Cancer Society and this time walking was personal for Herman, and she wasn’t sure what the future would bring.

“It was emotional, having just started my treatment,” Herman says. “But I walked a few laps with my team, and they helped me. I didn’t know what to expect, how I would be feeling, and what would happen. But they all took care of me that day.”

Her team offered big support for her as she went through her chemotherapy treatments, and not just her relay team, but all of her family, friends, and coworkers.

A year later she was back at the Grange Fairgrounds with her Relay for Life team, this time as a healthy cancer survivor. She continues to take part in the relay each year because she knows how important positive thinking and support can be for people as they go through chemo and other cancer treatments.

Chemotherapy is a difficult treatment, as the chemicals go through the body to kill the fast-growing cancer cells; it also can affect other fast-growing healthy cells and cause a person to feel sick. Nausea, hair loss, infertility, diarrhea are all common side effects among others, according to Kerrian Gray, MD, hematologist and oncologist at Geisinger.

The side effects of chemo vary between patients depending on the type of cancer, the stage being treated, and what the treatment plan is, says Gray. It is important for patients to know their treatment plan and have a support team to help them get through it.

Staying Active

For Herman, the process was difficult and long. A three-month ordeal left her tired and feeling sick, but through it all she continued to go to work in the admissions office at Penn State.

“It really helped for me to stay busy and keep on with my life,” Herman says. “People at work were so great, they would come in and check on me and it really made me feel supported, along with all the support I got from my friends and family.”

Herman says that keeping busy helped her keep her mind off of negative things, and it kept her body strong.

And staying active is one of the key steps to getting through chemo and getting back to feeling healthy, says Kathryn Schmitz, PhD, MPH, professor of epidemiology at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey.

“As a person goes through chemo and other cancer treatments it is very common to come out feeling like they have aged a decade, and this is often because people tend to move less and become sedentary,” Schmitz says. “Sometimes it cannot be helped because people don’t feel well, but it is important to try to take an active role in staying healthy in order to recover and get back to their normal activities. Exercise, diet, and hydration all play a big part in helping people recover from chemotherapy.”

While the chemotherapy is fighting the cancer cells in a patient’s body, there are still millions of healthy cells that must be kept functioning at a healthy level as a person goes through treatment, Schmitz says.

While some patients, like Herman, are able to continue with their daily activities, others are not able to do so. So when they aren’t going to work, moving as they normally would, exercise becomes even more important.

It is common and understandable that a person may need more rest while going through chemo, Schmitz says, and a patient should rest if needed but exercise is important too. Simple weight-bearing exercises can help a person keep some muscle in their bodies as they go through treatment, and in turn help them recover afterward, she says. But it is important to go slow and not overdo the exercise.

“It is common that two or three days after a chemo treatment that a patient might be feeling pretty good, so they might go out and really exercise hard,” says Schmitz. This may cause a person to feel too fatigued to exercise again later and have a negative result.

Patients are advised to start easy with exercise and build up slowly. For those who are unsure about what kind of exercise to do, Schmitz says the website is a helpful resource to get started.

Importance of Diet

Diet is another struggle for patients on chemotherapy, because some of the side effects include nausea and diarrhea, and it is common for people to eat less, Schmitz says. It is helpful for people to know how many calories they were taking in before and try to keep up with that level as they go through treatment. Websites like My Plate ( can help people calculate the number of calories and types of food they eat.

Schmitz also suggests eating with plastic-wear instead of silver to help cut back on the metal taste that chemo tends to leave in the mouth.

Carrying a large water bottle also helps patients stay aware of how much water they are getting during the process. Dehydration can lead to a worsening of systems, so it is important to keep drinking water, Schmitz says.

Herman feels lucky that her cancer was caught early and the treatment worked. She has been cancer-free since October 2011. In January 2012 she went to her first Pink Zone basketball game at the Bryce Jordan Center and was overcome with emotion as she saw the crowd full of survivors and supporters.

“I was never much into basketball, but now I go to the game every year. Since they were all there to support me during that time,” Herman says of friends and family, “we stop at McDonald’s after the game and I treat them to a small something as way to say thank you. It’s our little tradition and we hope it continues for a long time.”


Vincent Corso is a freelance writer from Port Matilda.






Vincent Corso is a freelance writer from State College.
Disclaimer: Copyright © 2019 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.