Up until fairly recently, the advice to cancer patients during treatment was to rest as much as necessary. But a revolution of sorts is underway as the remarkable, positive affect exercise can have on a patients’ ability to cope with treatment and their future health is revealed.
While keeping active and maintaining a healthy body weight have both been shown to limit the recurrence of certain cancers and improve mortality rates, studies now suggest that exercise can also improve a patient’s tolerance for treatments such as chemotherapy and their ability to manage side effects such as fatigue, pain and depression.
According to Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA), for women diagnosed with breast cancer, regular exercise has also been shown to improve their overall quality of life, affecting body weight and muscle strength while also boosting body image and self-confidence.
Trish Calder, Specialist Breast Care Nurse at Epworth Breast Service, says she had a “light bulb” moment at a survivorship conference several years ago when the keynote speaker, a respected international expert, presented evidence showing that while survival rates for breast cancer were improving, many patients were suffering cardiac issues related to their treatment.
“I realised just how important it was for us to work at improving a patient’s cardiovascular fitness throughout their treatment,” says Trish.
“I believe within the next couple of years assessing a patient’s physical fitness at diagnosis will become standard practice, and a tailored exercise program will be prescribed to run in parallel with their other treatments.”
What sort of exercise is best?
There is no right or wrong type of exercise. Choosing one you enjoy is a good idea; after all if it makes you happy you’re likely to keep it up. For some that might mean walking or jogging, for others, team sports like netball or soccer will be more appealing, there is also good evidence to suggest activities like pilates and yoga can be beneficial.
Current American guidelines suggest up to 150 minutes a week of exercise, but any program needs to be tailored to the individual and will depend on surgeries and the type of cancer. For example, an older patient, or someone who has been quite sedentary prior to treatment might start out with a slow walk each day and build up the duration and intensity over time.
The marvellous thing about exercise is that it’s something every patient can do, regardless of age, fitness level or ability. And with such compelling evidence to back it up, we expect to see more patients experiencing the benefits in the future.
“When you exercise you feel good,” says Trish. “It benefits the mind, the body and the spirit.”