Exercise Benefits Patients Being Treated for Early-Stage Breast Cancer

May 1, 2001

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.

Contrary to traditional medical advice that rest isthe best medicine for fatigue caused by treatmentfor breast cancer, the largest study of its kind found that exercise improvesphysical functioning and weight control for many patients. Researchers in Canadafound that women undergoing treatment for early-stage breast cancer whomaintained a regular exercise program of hour-long walking sessions 3 to 5 timesper week for 6 months had a significant improvement in cardiac conditioningand overall functioning.

As reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (19:657-665,2001), the randomized study of 123 patients concluded that women who exercisedon their own in a "self-directed" exercise program increased physicalfunctioning by 5.7 points on a standard scale of 100 points, and those whoexercised in supervised groups gained 2.2 points in functioning.Comparatively, researchers found that inactivity contributed to the debilitationof patients in a control group who followed the traditional medical advice oflittle or no exercise during cancer treatment—this group actually lost anaverage of 4.1 points in their physical functioning. The findings wereconsistent 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 inexercise. Even moderate physical activity was meaningful, resulting in anincreased ability to function and feel independent," said the study’slead author, Roanne Segal, MD, medical director of the oncology rehabilitationprogram at Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre.

Surprising Finding

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

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