Staying Active During Treatment — New Research
“Staying Active During Treatment — New Research Shows Light Exercise Can Make Chemo Much More Tolerable for Patients with Advanced Colorectal Cancer” by Caroline Hopkins
Staying active during cancer treatment isn’t always easy, but experts and survivors tell us all the time that it makes a huge difference. Now, new evidence suggests that physical activity could help patients with advanced colorectal cancer avoid some of the more difficult side effects of their treatment—and ultimately, live longer without their cancer getting worse.
The study, published in the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)’s Journal of Clinical Oncology, found that, among people with metastatic colorectal cancer (that is, colorectal cancer that has spread beyond the colon and rectum), those who said they engaged in at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each day experienced a 27 percent reduction of severe treatment-related toxicities—meaning the side effects associated with cancer treatment (in this case, chemotherapy).
The study’s researchers, including Dr. Brendan Guercio of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, had initially set out to see if increased physical activity was associated with greater overall survival, which means the overall length of time that someone survives after their diagnosis. While they didn’t ultimately find a significant difference in overall survival, they did find a difference in something called “progression-free survival,” which is a way of measuring how long someone lives without their cancer getting worse. The study found about a 20 percent difference in progression-free survival—meaning that the people who stayed active lived for a longer time without their cancer progressing.
“Our findings support the discussion and recommendation of physical activity in the management of metastatic colorectal cancer,” Dr. Guercio said in a press release about the research, adding that more research would be needed to confirm that the physical activity actually caused the improvement in progression-free survival and adverse effects.
“There are a lot of myths about what one can do during chemotherapy,” Dr. Marleen Meyers, a medical oncologist and Director of the Cancer Survivorship Program at NYU Perlmutter Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous conversation about how to deal with some of chemo’s most difficult side effects. Dr. Meyers treats patients with breast cancer, but she said her advice applies to many other cancers as well.
“You don’t have to hibernate,” she said, explaining that when it comes to fatigue—one of the most common side effects of chemo—physical activity can make a big difference.
“Lack of exercise actually begets fatigue,” Dr. Meyers said. “So the best treatment for fatigue is exercise. And what we have to do is get people over the hump, to get initial exercise going.”
Exercise doesn’t have to mean rigorously working out, though. Dr. Meyers said you could start with walking for just 10 minutes every day or every other day, for instance, and then slowly working your way up from there.
Dr. Elizabeth Comen, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a medical advisor to SurvivorNet, also said that with exercise—especially after a cancer diagnosis—it’s important to choose an activity that you genuinely enjoy.
“Exercise doesn’t have to mean all of a sudden you’re running a triathlon or you’re doing something you’ve never done before,” Dr. Comen said, adding that, when she meets with patients she often asks them what it is they like to do.
“Do you like dancing, but you really don’t want to go to that Zumba class because you’re afraid of embarrassing yourself? Well, maybe you turn on the music at home, and you have a dance party at home,” she said. Other simple ways to add a bit of activity into your day include walking to work (if you live in a city where that’s possible) or choosing to take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Of course, every cancer journey is different, and how you’re feeling is an important factor to consider when it comes to physical activity. If you’re concerned about adding a specific type of exercise into your routine while you’re going through cancer treatment, it’s a good idea to talk it over with a doctor who’s familiar with your unique treatment.