The Exercise Prescription for Treating Cancer

The Exercise Prescription for Treating Cancer

Could physical activity make cancer treatments more effective? Two studies suggest the answer is yes. But we know that exercise isn’t easy if you’re coping with cancer or its aftermath. So we’ve got some ideas for making it happen, on your terms. But first, let’s look at what the latest research is revealing about how physical activity helps fight cancer.

A Duke University study is making headlines with news that exercise plus chemotherapy shrinks breast cancer tumors more than chemotherapy alone. One possible reason: Exercise relaxes arteries and increases circulation, sending more blood into tumors. This makes chemotherapy work better, especially in solid tumors that have grown a jumble of blood vessels so twisted and kinked that hardly any fresh blood reaches the tumor itself. These “hypoxic tumors” are especially resistant to chemotherapy and to radiation thanks to their oxygen-starved environment. Exercise makes the tumors more receptive to blood and oxygen so treatment is a lot more effective.

In a 2014 study, University of Florida researchers found that exercise increased blood and oxygen to prostate cancer tumors too. There’s also early evidence that exercise may encourage cancer cells to destroy themselves, a process called apoptosis. It may be one reason why breast cancer survivors who stay active have a 34% lower risk for death or a cancer comeback, colon cancer survivors cut their risks by 39-59% and prostate cancer survivors cut their odds for cancer-related death by 39%.

Getting in the Mindset to Exercise
We understand that if you’ve just received a cancer diagnosis or are in the midst of therapy it may take more than a little self-motivation to get into the idea of starting an exercise program. Treatment side effects like nausea and altered red and white blood cell counts, anxiety, depression, pain and fatigue can all get in the way, as can a busy schedule if you’re working, raising a family or just coping with difficult symptoms. But the benefits are remarkable. And remember, getting moving can tame anxiety, lift depression, restore energy and make you feel more hopeful about the future. So if you need a boost, ask your family, friends or work pals to join in. Having a buddy is the number one way to make sure you start - and stick with - your active routine. Let them know that as little as 30 minutes of brisk walking a day can lower their odds for cancer of the breast, colon, prostate, lungs and uterus, too.

To begin increasing your level of physical activity, follow these three simple steps.

  1. Talk with your doctor. Low red blood cell counts, off-kilter mineral levels due to treatment side effects, pain and nausea or vomiting are among the reasons your doctor may suggest not exercising for a few days or longer. If you have a low white blood cell count or take medications that lower your immunity, steer clear of public gyms.
  2. Go easy.  Add movement in little ways. Walk around during work breaks and lunch. Take a short stroll, adding more time if and when you can. Or try walking briskly for a minute, then resting, then walking again. Aim for 30 minutes of brisk activity a day. You can divide it into 10-minute mini-work-outs. Take your time reaching your goal -- listen to your body and get the rest you need.
  3. ​​Work out with others who are in the know.   Ask your doctor, your local hospital or call the nearest major cancer center for info on exercise classes for cancer survivors. Some cancer centers also offer help designing exercise programs for survivors and current patients. Another option: Working with a personal trainer (talk with your doctor first, of course).  A joint program of The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Cancer Society teaches personal trainers about the needs of cancer patients. 

Medically reviewed in May 2019.

Don't Ignore Cancer Warning Signs
Don't Ignore Cancer Warning Signs
Ignoring signs that could indicate cancer can be dangerous. Research out of the United Kingdom reveals that in one study, out of all folks (50 and old...
Read More
What is the leading cause of death in the U.S?
Baptist Health South FloridaBaptist Health South Florida
Heart disease and cancer rank first and second, respectively, in leading causes of death in the U.S....
More Answers
9 Cancer Symptoms You Should Never Ignore
9 Cancer Symptoms You Should Never Ignore9 Cancer Symptoms You Should Never Ignore9 Cancer Symptoms You Should Never Ignore9 Cancer Symptoms You Should Never Ignore
Learn which seemingly harmless symptoms may be a sign of cancer.
Start Slideshow
Do the Benefits of Weight-Loss Surgery Outweigh the Risks?
Do the Benefits of Weight-Loss Surgery Outweigh the Risks?