Contrary to the 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 3-5 times per week for six months had a significant improvement in cardiac conditioning and overall functioning.
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 patients, whether they received chemotherapy, hormonal treatments, or radiation.
"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," says the study's lead author, Roanne Segal, M.D., medical director of the oncology rehabilitation program at Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre.
Researchers were surprised that women who exercised on their own had better aerobic results than women who participated in a group supervised exercise program. Segal says the difference could be that those who were supervised within a medical setting were more restrained, compared to patients who exercised as they liked at home.
She also points out that patients using tamoxifen as hormonal therapy, which can increase weight, had the biggest weight reduction of all participants following exercise - an average loss of two to eight pounds.
"Structured Exercise Improves Physical Functioning in Women With Stages I and II Breast Cancer: Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial;" Roanne Segal, MD, et al.; Department of Medical Oncology, Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre, Ontario, Canada. Vol. 19, No. 3 (February 1), 2001: pp 657-665.