The Fitness Fixer
The Fitness Fixer

Exercise and Cancer

Regular physical exercise is documented to reduce risk of cancer. Exercise has also been found to increase survival in those with existing cancer, (JAMA and J Clin Oncol.) improving both number of years and quality of life.

Until recently (sometimes currently), cancer patients, along with heart patients and back pain sufferers were told to rest and stop activity. Inactivity creates new health problems and worsens existing health problems. Lack of regular exercise decreases strength, endurance, energy, blood sugar regulation, cellular repair (lengthy list here) and increases fatigue. Cancer treatments of radiation and chemotherapy do the same, and worse. This is called iatrogenic harm, which means injury or illness brought on by medical treatment. One medical report found that debilitating tiredness and loss of energy from cancer treatments can be more disruptive to the patient than the original pain of cancer. Another report called fatigue, "The most important consideration for the patient with cancer." Cancer fatigue can be a problem for months, even years, after treatments end.

Reader Dr. Zoe E., cancer survivor with personal experience writes:

"I don't think I'm quite ready for prime-time yet - but if I can be a source of encouragement to those trashed by chemo, I'm happy to be displayed.

"Yes, exercise helps if you can do it. Lots of people are lucky to experience low toxicity during chemo and are able to keep up their exercise programs or active life through treatment. Others are laid low and must stop treatment or are just trying to recover enough between treatments to continue them.

"While the Lance Armstrongs and Tony Snows of the world are inspirational, it would be a bad thing if the general population thought that people should be able to work and function during cancer treatment. Many, maybe most, can't and they shouldn't feel bad about it. Chemotherapy is as close to killing you as modern medicine gets."

Dr Zoe sent an update the day before yesterday:

"I did the Relay for Life on Saturday (a fund raiser for the American Cancer Society). It's a 12-hour team event where you keep one person on the track for the full time. I did the Survivor's Lap and several more with lots of rest stops. I managed to hang out there for 4 hours before I got too pooped. No photos though, I'm even more camera shy than blog shy! You can draw a picture if you want."

One of the benefits of exercise is that your body produces more of an interesting compound called heat shock protein. Heat shock proteins (HSP) are families of proteins that do several things including accompanying and helping other proteins under stress (called chaperoning). Heat shock chaperones keep the other proteins neatly folded when they are being deformed by stress factors such as infection, ultraviolet light, starvation, heat, and other harsh conditions. Heat shock proteins help cell survival and are thought to mobilize immune function against infections and diseases. One of the big stressors of focus in heat shock study is cancer. Heat shock proteins have been investigated for their role in activating immune response to cancer, and in cancer vaccine research.

Molecular physiology isn't my research area, so I haven't done any work in it personally. I just read the work of others. Heat shock proteins are intensely fascinating to me for their role in exercise, in increasing tolerance to hot environments (interestingly, cold too), and other extreme challenges to the body. I hope to post more about it from the sports medicine meeting next week.

Getting enough exercise to improve strength and quality of life doesn't only mean exhausting yourself or stopping your day to change clothes and go "do exercises." Get exercise that is healthy and fun, and as a normal part of how you bend and position your body in healthful ways during your day.

Some posts with ideas:

Photo 1 by portorikan
Photo 2 from a Cancer Run by wjklos
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About the Author


Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.