Exercising is an important part of recovery for early-stage Study Finds Exercise Helps Breast Cancer Patients Cope with Side Effects of Treatment (dateline February 12, 2001) | Breast Health News | Imaginis - The Women's Health & Wellness Resource Network

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Study Finds Exercise Helps Breast Cancer Patients Cope with Side Effects of Treatment (dateline February 12, 2001)

Exercising is an important part of recovery for early-stage breast cancer patients, according to a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. In the study, women who exercised on their own after surgery and adjuvant therapy (such as chemotherapy or tamoxifen) had more energy and missed less days of work compared to women who engaged in little to no exercise during recovery. Cancer experts say that exercise helps women feel in control of their disease and can help them lose weight gained as a result of chemotherapy or other treatment.

To conduct the study, Roanne Segal, MD of the Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre in Ontario, Canada and her colleagues divided 123 early-stage breast cancer patients into three categories with different exercise instructions:

  • Control group: advised to exercise (by walking) if they wanted
  • Supervised group: were part of a supervised group who exercised (by walking) as instructed
  • Unsupervised group: advised to engage in exercise (by walking) on their own several times a week

After 26 weeks, Dr. Segal and her colleagues found that the women who exercised by walking one hour or more three to five times a week had improved cardiovascular health and were able to function better after breast cancer treatment than the women who did not exercise. Surprisingly, the women who exercised on their own received the most benefit from exercise, more so than the supervised group. The researchers were surprised by these results but say that exercise restrictions imposed on the supervised group may explain why the unsupervised group showed the best results.

Breast cancer patients are often motivated to exercise as a means of coping with the disease. According to Anna Schwartz, a researcher from Oregon Health Sciences Services, exercise is most beneficial for patients who are fatigued from treatment. Previous studies have shown that physical activity can improve both the physical and emotional condition of cancer patients.

Exercise can also help cancer patients lose weight gained during treatment. In Dr. Segal’s study, women in the supervised exercise group were most successful in losing weight. The study also found that women who exercised were more capable of working during treatment than patients who did not exercise. Among the women who engaged in exercise on their own, only 6% were unable to work compared with 19% of women who did not exercise.

Exercise is possible for many early-stage breast cancer patients. With early-stage breast cancer, the cancer has not spread past the breast or axillary (armpit) lymph nodes. Treatment typically consists of surgery (lumpectomy or mastectomy), with or without lymph node removal, and adjuvant therapy, such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or drug therapy (tamoxifen). However, early-stage breast cancer patients can experience side effects from treatment that often temporarily interfere with their quality of life. For example, common side effects of chemotherapy include nausea and vomiting, hair loss, and fatigue. According to Dr. Segal, adjuvant breast cancer treatment can leave 80% of breast cancer patients feeling too fatigued to engage in their normal daily activities.

Walking is an appropriate exercise for many early-stage breast cancer patients because it is safe and easy to do. According to Schwartz, some advanced breast cancer patients can also benefit from prescribed physical activity. However, all breast cancer patients should talk to their physicians about the most appropriate exercise regimen based on their individual circumstances.

It is especially important that patients ask physicians when it is safe to begin exercising and using the surgery-side arm again after a mastectomy. While there are no contraindications to performing any number of exercises after full recovery from mastectomy, there are certain precautions that should be taken by any person who has undergone a mastectomy, especially those who have had accompanying lymph node dissection. See below for a link to more information on exercising after mastectomy.

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