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Exercise a 'Wonder Drug' for Cancer Survival

Physical Activity Aids Recovery and Long-Term Health of Cancer Survivors, Report Shows
By Moira Dower
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Roger Henderson, MD

Woman after exercise with towel around neck

Aug. 8, 2011 -- Cancer patients can reduce the risks of side effects and cancer recurrence by exercising regularly, a new report shows.

The report, "Move More: Physical activity the underrated 'wonder drug,'" from Macmillan Cancer Support in the U.K., says that 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week, the amount recommended by the U.K.'s four chief medical officers, is the minimum amount required to see the benefits.

Moderate intensity activity includes exercise such as cycling and very brisk walking, but also household tasks such as heavy cleaning and mowing the lawn.

The report presents four key findings:

  1. Breast cancer patients' risk of recurrence and of dying from the disease can be reduced by up to 40% by doing 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week.
  2. Bowel cancer patients' risk of recurrence and dying from the disease can be reduced by up to 50% by doing significant amounts of physical activity; this means about six hours of moderate intensity physical activity per week.
  3. Prostate cancer patients' risk of dying from the disease can be reduced by up to 30% by doing the recommended 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity.

After treatment, all cancer patients can reduce their risk of side effects from cancer and its treatment, including fatigue, depression, osteoporosis, and heart disease, by doing the recommended levels of physical activity.

Many Health Professionals Unaware of Benefits

However, despite strong emerging evidence that being physically active could dramatically improve cancer patients' recovery and long-term health, a Macmillan online survey of 400 health professionals who deal with cancer patients found that many are not aware of this and most are not talking to their patients about it. Over half of the primary care doctors, nurses, and oncologists surveyed do not speak to their cancer patients about the benefits of physical activity, or at best they speak to just a few of them.

Ciaran Devane, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, says, "Cancer patients would be shocked if they knew just how much benefit physical activity could have on their recovery and long-term health, in some cases reducing their chances of having to go through the grueling ordeal of treatment all over again."

Exercise Not Just an Add-on to Care

According to Jane Maher, chief medical officer of Macmillan Cancer Support, "The advice I would previously have given to one of my patients would have been to 'take it easy.' This has now changed significantly because of the recognition that, if physical exercise were a drug, it would be hitting the headlines. There really needs to be a cultural change so that health professionals see physical activity as an integral part of cancer after-care, not just an optional add-on."

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