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Exercise Benefits Patients Being Treated for Early-Stage Breast Cancer

Exercise Benefits Patients Being Treated for Early-Stage Breast Cancer

Contrary to traditional medical advice that rest is the best medicine for fatigue caused by treatment for breast cancer, the largest study of its kind found that exercise improves physical functioning and weight control for many patients. Researchers in Canada found that women undergoing treatment for early-stage breast cancer who maintained a regular exercise program of hour-long walking sessions 3 to 5 times per week for 6 months had a significant improvement in cardiac conditioning and overall functioning.

As reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (19:657-665, 2001), the randomized study of 123 patients concluded that women who exercised on their own in a "self-directed" exercise program increased physical functioning by 5.7 points on a standard scale of 100 points, and those who exercised in supervised groups gained 2.2 points in functioning. Comparatively, researchers found that inactivity contributed to the debilitation of patients in a control group who followed the traditional medical advice of little or no exercise during cancer treatment—this group actually lost an average of 4.1 points in their physical functioning. The findings were consistent across all patient subgroups, whether they received chemotherapy, hormonal treatments, or radiation therapy.

"Breast cancer patients receiving adjuvant therapy, including chemotherapy, are willing, and quite capable, of participating in exercise. Even moderate physical activity was meaningful, resulting in an increased ability to function and feel independent," said the study’s lead author, Roanne Segal, MD, medical director of the oncology rehabilitation program at Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre.

Surprising Finding

The investigators were surprised to find that women who exercised on their own had better aerobic results than women who participated in a group-supervised exercise program. The difference, Dr. Segal speculated, could be attributable to the fact that patients who exercised within a medical setting were more restrained, compared to women who exercised as they liked at home.

In addition, she pointed out that patients who were using tamoxifen (Nolvadex) as hormonal therapy, which can increase weight in some women, had the greatest weight reduction of all participants following exercise—an average of 2 to 8 lb.

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