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Why should I be exercising whilst undergoing cancer treatment?

March 23, 2021

Do you know that there is growing evidence that suggests exercise should be used as an adjunctive therapy with patients undergoing chemotherapy, radiation or immunotherapy treatment as it not only provides greater tolerance to therapies, but also increases their effectiveness.

 

Cancer in our community has become all too common with statistics stating that an Australian is diagnosed with cancer every 4 minutes. Cancer not only impacts a person’s physical and mental health, it has a ripple effect impacting people’s family, work, social life and independence.

 

Advances in anti-cancer treatments mean that people are living longer with cancer, however are not living as well as they could be due to the negative side effects associated with treatment. Many of these common side effects such as fatigue, brain fog, loss of muscle mass and strength, as well as psychological symptoms can remain once active treatment has finished and consequently put people at higher risk of developing other cancers and comorbid conditions such as osteoporosis, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

 

Ongoing research supports that exercise is a safe and effective intervention to counteract many of the negative physical and psychological effects of cancer treatment. People who exercise regularly following a cancer diagnosis experience fewer and less severe side effects, as well as lowering their risk of cancer recurrence and cancer- specific mortality for some cancers.

The benefits of exercise for people living with cancer include:

 

  • Reduces cancer-related fatigue.
  • Improves quality of life during treatment.
  • Improves physical function to help with everyday activities.
  • Improves immune function.
  • Improves strength and flexibility.
  • Maintenance of muscle mass and bone mineral density.
  • Reduces stress, depression and anxiety.
  • Reduces hospitalisation duration.
  • Improves chemotherapy competition rates, and effectiveness of chemotherapy. 
  • Reduces risk of developing new cancers and other diseases such as osteoporosis, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
  • Improves survivorship rates vs non-exercise groups.

Cancer tumours change the blood vessels around them which can restrict the amount of cancer-killing agents reaching the cells, however emerging research suggests that exercise acts to normalise the blood vessels around these tumours. Therefore exercise may improve the effectiveness of treatments as more drugs and more of the body’s natural defence mechanisms can continue to attack the disease.

 

As exercise improves our overall immune system, it’s possible that cancer cells can be flooded by a greater amount of our body’s natural cancer-killing agents. It is proposed that exercise acts to control some of the hormones that stimulate the spread of cancer and that exercise may change the way the genes associated with cancer are switched on and off. Exercise turns on genes that slow the spread of cancer, therefore suppressing tumour growth which may reduce the relative risk of cancer related death by up to 50-60%.

 

Exercise prescription needs to be highly individualised for those living with cancer. The exercise prescription that works best is based on a person’s medical history, exercise and physical activity history, treatment plan and severity of condition. It is recommended that exercise is prescribed by an Accredited Exercise Physiologist to best maintain a person’s health, minimise the side effects associated with treatment and maximise rehabilitation and survivorship.

References:
Cormie, P. (2019). Ex-Med Cancer. Ex-Med Cancer Final Report: A community based exercise medicine program for cancer survivors.
Cormie, P. (2019). Exercise and Sports Science Australia. Exercise and Cancer E-book. 
Cormie, P. (2016, March 19). “A new contender in the fight against cancer”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIQh4fUZkJs

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