The Power of Exercise in Breast Cancer Survivors

woman on eliptical trainer

Getting regular exercise is important for breast cancer survivors’ continued health. Physical activity can help lessen certain side effects of treatment, such as fatigue and depression, and has been shown to reduce risk of recurrence and improve survival.

The American Cancer Society, as well as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommends that cancer survivors get 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity, along with at least 2 strength training sessions, each week.

Melinda Irwin

Few survivors, however, are getting enough exercise for it to be beneficial, according to a recent study conducted by the Yale Cancer Center and Yale School of Public Health. Barriers to exercise such as cost or not knowing how to get started need to be eliminated, says Melinda Irwin, Ph.D., study co-author and co-director of the cancer prevention and control program at the Yale Cancer Center.

Irwin is well versed in the vital role exercise can play in improving the lives of breast cancer survivors. She has conducted several studies about the impact of exercise on breast cancer survivors. Her early research on the topic, which was funded in part by grants from the American Cancer Society, was among the first to show that in breast cancer survivors, exercise lowers levels of insulin and a hormone-like substance called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). High levels of these are linked to breast cancer.

Irwin’s studies have also found that women who engage in exercise after breast cancer are more likely to lose weight and body fat. Being overweight or obese has been shown to increase risk for recurrence of breast cancer and the risk of dying from it.

More recently, Irwin found that exercise also helps reduce the joint pain brought on by the hormone therapy given to some women after breast cancer surgery in order to reduce the risk of recurrence. Many women stop taking this type of medication due to the pain they experience. In Irwin’s study, women who exercised were more likely to report a reduction in pain from moderate to mild. “This is important because in turn it will lead to better quality of life and better adherence to the medication, which we know strongly improves their prognosis,” says Irwin.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, when it comes to exercise, for breast cancer survivors, “anything is better than nothing,” says Irwin. “Even brisk walking can be beneficial,” and of course cost effective, Irwin notes.

Irwin hopes the results of her studies and others will influence the way doctors and health insurance companies handle exercise. “This research gives more information to insurance companies to say these exercise lifestyle programs are effective and you should reimburse for them.”

As far as doctors go, Irwin hopes they take an even more active role in encouraging exercise in breast cancer patients. “Patients will really listen to their doctors, so it will help if we can get the doctors to remind patients of the importance of exercise and help them try to find a community [exercise] program.”

She also thinks that it may benefit patients if their doctors begin a discussion about exercise at diagnosis.

During this time, “there needs to be lifestyle based discussions – we cannot wait until they are 1 to 2 years out from diagnosis,” Irwin says. “Doctors need to have the discussion upfront along with other treatment options because exercise is also a treatment and can help prevent weight gain during cancer treatment.”

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