NEW ORLEANS--Fatigue may be underrecognized as a disturbing symptom of breast cancer, especially in postmenopausal women, but exercise may help combat it, according to several presentations at the Oncology Nursing Society's 22nd Annual Congress.
Fatigue has been found to have an impact on physical well-being, ability to work, and ability to "enjoy living in the moment" in more than half of patients with cancer, according to an Ortho Biotech survey of 419 cancer patients.
It is hypothesized that menopause may deal a double whammy, by its characteristic sleep disturbances, mood changes, and depression.
Barbara F. Piper, DNSc, associate professor of nursing, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, said that menopausal status may significantly influence not only the emotional meaning ascribed to the fatigue experience but also the amount and severity of the fatigue.
Dr. Piper reported the results of a survey of 715 survivors of breast cancer (32% of 2,250 women returned questionnaires), using the 22-item Piper Fatigue Scale. Her colleagues in the study were Marylin J. Dodd, PhD, and Sue Dibble, DNSc, of the University of California School of Nursing, San Francisco, and Marissa Weiss, MD, Paoli Memorial Hospital, Paoli, Pennsylvania.
The typical respondent was 53 years old, married, Caucasian, and postmenopausal, and had been previously treated with combination cancer therapy for early-stage disease. Time since treatment ranged from 17 days to 27 years.
The investigators found that peri-menopausal women had significantly higher mean fatigue scores than women who were premenopausal.
Benefits of Exercise
Exercise may be one of the best strategies for treating the fatigue experienced by breast cancer patients, several investigators said at the meeting.
Victoria Mock, DNSc, director of oncology nursing research, Johns Hopkins University, reported that an exercise intervention program can objectively reduce fatigue in patients with breast cancer.
She evaluated the impact of a self-paced, moderately intense walking program on fatigue, physical function, and emotional distress during cancer therapy. Patients walked 20 to 30 minutes per session, four to five times a week, during their six-week radiotherapy treatment.
Exercise or Usual Care
The study included 50 women with stage I and II breast cancer, aged 35 to 65, randomized to an exercise program or usual care.
They were objectively measured with a 12-minute walking test, and physical functioning and emotional distress were evaluated by symptom assessment scales. Scores were obtained at baseline, midtest (three weeks), and post-test.
Patients randomized to the exercise program were able to walk significantly greater distances in 12 minutes at the post-test assessment, as compared to the usual care group: 3,371 feet versus 3,089 feet. Their exercise level was rated 4.51 versus 0.92 for the usual care patients. These differences were statistically and clinically significant.
Symptom intensity was significantly higher in the usual care group, especially fatigue, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping. Fatigue was the most frequent and intense subjective symptom, reported by 100% of patients. Significant correlations were found between fatigue and difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and depression.
"With diminished exercise, you lose functional capacity and are left with less coping ability," Dr. Mock commented. "Walking may have helped the women sleep better and wake up refreshed."
She said that the psychosocial aspect of exercise may have been as influential as the cardiorespiratory improvements, since it typically takes 10 or 12 weeks to show a training effect. Patients receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer have also been shown to benefit similarly from exercise, she added.
More Minutes May Be Better
Another presentation by Louann Koopermeiners, MSN, RN, of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, confirmed the impact of exercise on fatigue.
Among the 42 participants in the eight-week study, the total number of exercise minutes correlated with fatigue, with higher minutes predicting decreased fatigue in the Fatigue Impact Scale regression model. However, simply participating in the exercise program did not correlate with reduced fatigue.
Women had greater fatigue if they were between the ages of 45 and 55, had more depression, or had more insomnia. While exercise certainly appeared to diminish fatigue, Ms. Koopermeiners added that fatigue appears to be multifactorial in breast cancer patients.