The People's Perspective on Medicine

Why Doesn’t Cancer Treatment Also Include Exercise?

Have you ever been diagnosed with cancer? What about a loved one? Cancer treatment is challenging. Exercise is important for recovery and durable remission.
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When people are diagnosed with cancer, they are often faced with challenging treatment decisions: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or more recently, pricey immunotherapy. Now, researchers are suggesting an additional approach: EXERCISE! The trouble is that most cancer treatment programs do not include exercise as part of their protocol. Insurance companies are not likely to pay for this crucial adjunct to standard therapies.

Moving Through Cancer!

Experts in the field of exercise oncology recently published a call to action titled “Exercise is medicine in oncology: Engaging clinicians to help patients move through cancer” (CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, Oct. 16, 2019). They point out that exercise may lower the risk for developing cancer. Perhaps even more important, exercise can enhance cancer treatment, improve recovery and potentially prolong survival.

Preventing Cancer:

The exercise recommendations are from experts representing prestigious organizations, including the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society as well as major universities from around the world. They relied on solid scientific evidence to promote their perspective on exercise as medicine.

Another study reports that there is strong evidence that physical activity can lower the risk of developing colon, breast, kidney, bladder, endometrial, esophageal and stomach cancer (Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, November, 2019).  People who exercise also have lower rates of a number of other cancers, including those of the liver and the lung. Prevention is always the best medicine!

Cancer Treatment:

During and after cancer treatment, exercise can ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Patients also report less fatigue, improved physical functioning and better overall quality of life outcomes.

The authors note that exercise during and after therapy for prostate, breast and colorectal cancer may enhance treatment and improve survival statistics.

The Conclusions:

The authors make the following key points:

“First, physical activity is beneficial for the prevention of a number of different types of cancer including breast, colon, endometrial, kidney, bladder, esophageal, and stomach. Decreasing time spent sedentary may also lower the risk of some types of cancer, including endometrial, colon, and lung cancers. Second, physical activity prediagnosis and postdiagnosis of breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer is beneficial for survival outcomes. Postdiagnosis physical activity seems to exert greater effect on cancer outcomes compared with prediagnosis physical activity.”

In other words, exercise can prevent many cancers. After cancer treatment, exercise can boost the odds of living longer.

Getting Personal:

When my best friend, Dr. Tom Ferguson, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, he was treated at one of the best cancer centers in the United States. The doctors recommended a bone marrow transplant. This is about as tough a cancer treatment as you can get. It gets very close to killing patients with chemotherapy before resurrecting them. 

Dr. Tom had done his homework. He knew that exercise was good medicine. He brought his stationary bicycle to the hospital and situated it in his room. Some of the health professionals were a bit puzzled by his dedication to exercise. Dr. Tom continued to exercise during his treatment and recovery. He did really well.

Sadly, Dr. Tom did die from his blood cancer, but he outlived prognostic predictions by many years. I am convinced that his exercise routine contributed to his improved survival and the quality of his life.

Learn how another physician stood up for himself when he was diagnosed with cancer. He combined allopathic and Ayurvedic healing strategies.

How to Mix Conventional and Ayurvedic Medicine for Cancer

A Message for Oncologists, Cancer Clinics, Health Administrators and Insurance Companies:

Perhaps it is time for oncologists and cancer centers to integrate exercise plans into their treatment programs. Doctors and cancer centers focus on lab work, scans, chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and immunotherapy. All these approaches are crucial and expensive. Insurance companies and patients pay huge amounts of money for these life-saving services. Many cancer treatment strategies cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The authors of the Exercise Is Medicine report encourage the full development of an exercise oncology workforce. Their call to action urges cancer clinicians, researchers, policy makers, patients and the healthcare industry to embrace exercise along with traditional treatments. 

That means every cancer center would have well-trained exercise physiologists on staff who could tailor an exercise program for individual patients. There would be trainers and support staff along with equipment in the clinic or hospital where people could come for regular physical activity.

Group support from other patients would be essential to reinforce the value of exercise. We envision sessions designed for breast and prostate cancer survivors along with classes for many other common cancers. If we can have cardiac rehab programs, why not cancer rehab programs? Insurance companies and employers should pay for such exercise support, just the way they pay for lab work, scans or chemotherapy. In summary, compared to standard cancer treatment, exercise is a huge bargain!

Let’s encourage modern medicine to integrate exercise into all cancer treatment programs, from diagnosis through treatment and durable remissions!

Share your thoughts about exercise and cancer treatment. If you have been treated for cancer did your clinicians or your cancer center encourage exercise? Were you provided free access to an exercise program or gym? Would you like such  services, especially if they were tailored to your personal situation?

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    About the Author
    Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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    Citations
    • Schmitz, K. H., et al, "Exercise is medicine in oncology: Engaging clinicians to help patients move through cancer," CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, Oct. 16, 2019, https://doi.org/10.3322/caac.21579
    • Patel, A. V., et al, "American College of Sports Medicine Roundtable Report on Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Cancer Prevention and Control," Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, November, 2019, doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002117
    • Campbell, K. L., et al, " Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors," Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, November, 2019, doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002116
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    I’m all for exercise! My concern is if the insurance companies got involved, the cost of exercise would triple – they would find a way!

    If there is NOT a reason to avoid exercise, why would light to moderate exercise tailored to patient’s needs not be a part of treatment? The benefits of increased circulation, strength & stamina, and cardiovascular benefits should make it an obvious part of a cancer treatment program. Originally there was a fear that increased circulation would spread the cancer.

    It would be nice if treatment included exercise, and let’s throw in healthy foods, too. Why doesn’t this happen? No big pharma rep to push it to the doctors? No one’s bottom line would benefit from cancer patients knowing this and taking care of themselves. Sad.

    In my experience,the Breast Cancer folk always recommend exercise!

    Jane,

    It is one thing to recommend exercise and quite another to create 1) personalized exercise programs to suit an individual patient’s needs, 2) create free exercise programs where other cancer patients can participate and support one another with trained exercise oncology experts 3) create software reminders/support systems to encourage people to come together regularly and chart progress.

    We believe recommendations are a great first step, but many people need more structured encouragement.

    While I was on chemo, walking from bed to table was almost more than I could manage. Hard for me to imagine that some people work during treatment. I am in PT now and slowly regaining my strength.

    My oncologist prescribed exercise on my first visit. He explained that if he took me on for treatment of my mantle cell lymphoma, he expected full cooperation. And “my patients EXERCISE!” Sure enough, in the Duke infusion center there is a well worn path that each of us takes for a daily walk of a minimum 30 minutes – by the clock! I now walk a mile and a half daily five years later.

    How about diet, sleep habits, drinking habits, alternative therapies, supplements, expanding choices other than toxic chemo, possible-end of-life counselling or the choice of hospice rather than continued medical treatments that can be basically useless? Other alternatives include fasting, stopping sugar intake or lowering carb intake, the use of medical pot, and there are probably other actions that might be discussed.

    Given 7 to 10 years to live with cancer, my husband didn’t give up on running regularly. In fact, he ran in a marathon shortly after the diagnosis and felt good about his time, making it under the official time. He continued in 10Ks and shorter, for almost 30 years.

    IMO, cancer treatments do not include exercise due to all the costly, toxic chemicals given to “fight” the nasty disease. All these toxins wreak havoc on the body, immune system, energy, appetite, taste buds. It strips all that away. Therefore, leaving the patient with nothing to work with. Also, it’s not a prescription so there’s no $$ to be made by big Pharma, etc. This country NEEDS to find a better, more natural, more workable, etc. cure for cancer, its’s NASTY drugs, side effects & big bucks interests…NOW!

    My YMCA provided a free program called LiveStrong and a free membership for 6 months. . It was wonderful! Check your local Y to see if they offer it.

    How might we go about getting our insurance plans to cover exercise as a cancer treatment?

    Exercise has to become a routine thing as in activity of daily living. Bike riding, for example, can prevent many ailments but exercise is useless without a good diet. Weight control, for example, is 95% diet and 5% exercise.

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