Exercise enhances cancer treatment

U. PENN (US)—Cancer patients who have been told to rest and avoid exercise can—and should—find ways to be physically active both during and after treatment, according to new national guidelines.

“We have to get doctors past the ideas that exercise is harmful to their cancer patients,” says Kathryn Schmitz, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

“There is a still a prevailing attitude out there that patients shouldn’t push themselves during treatment, but our message—avoid inactivity—is essential.

“We now have a compelling body of high quality evidence that exercise during and after treatment is safe and beneficial for these patients, even those undergoing complex procedures such as stem cell transplants. If physicians want to avoid doing harm, they need to incorporate these guidelines into their clinical practice in a systematic way.”

Schmitz will present her findings at the 2010 meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Schmitz, whose previous research reversed decades of cautionary exercise advice given to breast cancer patients with the painful arm-swelling condition lymphedema, led a 13-member American College of Sports Medicine expert panel that developed the new recommendations after reviewing and evaluating literature on the safety and efficacy of exercise training during and after cancer therapy.

Cancer patients and survivors should strive to get the same 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise that is recommended for the general public, the panel says.

Though the evidence indicates that most types of physical activity—from swimming to yoga to strength training—are beneficial for cancer patients, clinicians should tailor exercise recommendations to individual patients, taking into account their general fitness level, specific diagnosis and factors about their disease that might influence exercise safety.

Cancer patients with weakened ability to fight infection, for instance, may be advised to avoid exercise in public gyms.

One persistent area of concern for cancer patients is change in body mass—both weight gain and weight loss tied to disease symptoms and treatment side effects.

Patients with hormone-based tumors, breast and prostate cancers, tend to gain weight during treatment and frequently have difficulty losing it. Other patients, especially those with gastrointestinal tumors, suffer from weight loss brought on by loss of appetite and changes in their ability to swallow and properly digest food.

The new guidelines indicate that both groups can benefit from exercise. Studies show, for instance, that exercise for weight control and reduction in body mass may actually reduce the risk of recurrence for breast cancer patients, and ultimately decrease breast cancer mortality.

For patients suffering from cancer-related weight loss, physical activity helps to maintain lean body mass, which can contribute to increased strength and well being.

Schmitz and her colleagues analyzed published studies related to five different adult cancer types (breast, during and after treatment, prostate, hematologic—with and without stem cell transplant—colon, and gynecologic), and reviewed the evidence for multiple health outcomes.

The panel found that although there are specific risks associated with cancer treatment that need to be considered when patients exercise, there is consistent evidence that exercise training can lead to improvements in aerobic fitness, muscular strength, quality of life and fatigue in breast, prostate, and hematologic cancer patients and survivors.

They found the data for colon and gynecologic cancers were too scant to draw firm conclusions, and identified several areas requiring further study. Age, for instance, is a critical variable, Schmitz says, since more must be learned about the effects of physical activity in cancer patients over age 65, to develop interventions that may help these patients continue to live and function independently.

The panel urges fitness professionals to enhance their capacity to serve the unique needs of cancer survivors. Schmitz noted that a “groundswell” of training programs now assist physical therapists and fitness trainers in deepening their knowledge of the effects of cancer diagnosis and treatment and improve their skills in this emerging area.

Practicing oncologists need to be informed about the new guidelines and their importance, and says that patients can play a role in changing attitudes and clinical practice, by reading the recommendations, discussing them with their doctors, and creating a demand for change that will drive more cancer centers and oncology practices to create and offer cancer exercise rehabilitation services.

More health news from the University of Pennsylvania: http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/news/.

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  1. Lori Buffum

    This is great news that I hope is spread far and wide. Another beneficial aspect of exercise that is not addressed here is how important it is to your mental health, attitude, and spiritual well-being. My personal road to recovery from breast cancer was literally that – being able to get back out on the roads, walking, jogging, training for my next “event.” My doctor was very supportive of recovery exercises for arm and shoulder mobility and urged me to get back to my walking/running at my own pace. That gave me a mission, a sense of accomplishment, some new goals, and that high you can get only from exercise. Everyone should be offered support for making exercise a big part of their recovery program!

  2. Jacqueline Errico

    Great article, thank you for addressing this and thank you Lori for your response. We can not say this enough! Your last comment about practicing oncologists is paramount in the mission of educating cancer patients/survivors – and we have found the best tool to the oncologist is the patient. The patient that sees results, who feels better – who is empowered with this new control – can help us “infiltrate” the oncologist office.
    Strength for Life provides free exercise classes and wellness weekends to cancer patients/survivors on Long Island, we try to eliminate any/all obstacles by providing the equipment, the costs of the weekend and availability of classes as conveniently located as possible. (www.strengthforlifeny.org) We know they will feel better, we see remarkable results in an 8 week program, and that is the “SOUL” reason we do what we do!

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