Cancer. It’s the word no one wants to hear, but sadly more and more of us will face a diagnosis either ourselves or in someone who we care about. By the age of 85, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, 1 in 5 men diagnosed with prostate cancer and 1 in 13 men are diagnosed with lung cancer. Ironically, people generally living longer appears to be the primary reason for increased rates of cancer across our population, yet whilst more people are being diagnosed with cancers the good news is that people are living longer with cancer. Cancer treatment has come a long way ion a very short period of time, but to this point the primary focus has been on the treatment of cancer and little focus has been paid to survivorship – what happens when people survive cancer. Evidence gathered over the last decade or two has pointed to one profound means to ensure survivors of cancer live better and longer and you might be surprised what it is – exercise.
Cancer patients have many competing demands for their time and energy, which can be particularly scarce, but research continues to reinforce a somewhat counter-intuitive piece of wisdom – cancer patients who undertake a carefully monitored and prescribed exercise program do better. Especially through the treatment phase of a cancer patients journey, individuals have been shown to have far lower rates of treatment toxicity (the awful side effects typically associated with chemotherapy) the more muscle mass they build, report higher rates of physical and psychological wellbeing, as well as drastically reducing their rates of secondary cancers and diseases they are more likely to develop after their primary cancer diagnosis.
Many decades ago, sufferers of heart attacks were strongly encouraged not to partake in any physical activity and were consigned to bed rest as part of their recovery. The difficulty was, those who took up that advice were more likely to die of a second heart attack than those who readily became more active. In the same way, encouraging patients to be active is now being extended to those with a cancer diagnosis as of primary importance, as important as their attendance to other treatments. The difficulty is that we profoundly underestimate the expertise required to exercise safely and effectively in many settings, and this case is certainly no exception. Just as someone who has had a heart attack should attend an expertly overseen rehabilitation program, so too should a cancer sufferer partake in carefully overseen exercise therapy by someone experienced in dealing with exercise for cancer sufferers and survivors.
So if you or a loved one have been given the difficult news of a cancer diagnosis find yourself an exercise physiologist for your healthcare team so that you can use exercise as medicine. You’ll live better if you do.