4 Unbelievable Benefits to Exercising When You Have Cancer

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One in two men and two in three women have a lifetime risk of developing cancer. Unfortunately, that means chances are you know someone who has had cancer or you’ve been diagnosed yourself.

But! The survival rate is improving. The 5-year survival rate has increased from 39% to 68% in whites and from 27% to 63% among blacks since the 1960s.

Undoubtedly, receiving a cancer diagnosis and undergoing cancer treatment can negatively affect a person’s physical health, mental health, and overall quality of life. As most of us know, cancer treatment is also expensive and time-consuming.

Experts Are Sometimes Wrong

Oncologists previously told cancer patients to stay away from exercise. They cautioned patients to avoid exercise because they thought increased blood flow would cause the cancer cells to circulate and spread. Later, it was found out this was not true. Still, less than 5% of cancer patients are referred to a cancer rehabilitation program, and 88% of patients did not even receive education on the importance of exercise during treatment.

Your Wallet Will Thank You

An individualized exercise program can help reduce healthcare costs for patients, hospitals, and insurance companies. An average decrease of $2834 (28%) was found in the average total charges of inpatient or outpatient encounters within a hospital a part of the Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association.

This 28% decrease in expenses that patients experienced after following an individualized exercise program shows that exercise can reduce some of the financial burdens for patients.

One study found that after six months of patients following an individualized exercise program, there was a 6% decrease in hospital inpatient stays with a 19% decrease in the length of stays associated with those admissions. It also found a 27% reduction in emergency visits and a 47% decrease in patient 30-day readmissions. With these decreases in hospital care, that is time saved for cancer patients as well as money saved for patients, insurance companies, and hospitals.

Benefits For Your Body

Exercise has a direct, positive impact on all the physical effects cancer has on the body. Some of these common side effects are muscular degeneration, cardiotoxicity (damage to the heart and surrounding parts), pulmonary toxicity (lung damage), fatigue, pain, neuropathy, immune dysfunction, gastrointestinal dysfunction, weight loss, and negative changes in thyroid health, and bone health.

Exercise increases the integrity of muscle tissue and protein synthesis, stimulating the release of hormones that increase muscle cell growth and development and improve metabolism.

Cardiovascular efficiency is also improved by exercise. Exercise can also improve the ventilation and transport of oxygen to cells. Exercise is known to help fatigue and is said to be the number one treatment for cancer-related fatigue.

Exercising at moderate intensity has been shown to increase white blood cell count. (These are a part of our immune system)

However, it should be noted that in a separate study done by the American Cancer Society, they had insufficient evidence to support cardiotoxicity, neuropathy, or improvements in pain. Although they did find strong evidence to support decreased levels of fatigue and moderate evidence to support bone health improvements.

Benefits For Your Mind

Cancer patients who had individualized exercise programming showed improvements in their mental health. They were shown to have fewer depressive symptoms, less anxiety, and a better quality of life. Exercise has also been shown to improve mood, create or increase hope and give patients a sense of control over their lives. Other side effects that can be improved are depression, stress, sleep, anxiety, cognition, and self-esteem. It should be noted that some studies have found insufficient evidence for cognitive function improvement through individualized exercise training.

Put the Odds in Your Favor

Along with improving patients’ quality of life and helping to reduce their symptoms and side effects, exercise can also improve patient outcomes. Survival rates are higher, as evidenced with colon, prostate, and breast cancer.

Exercise has been shown to improve almost all of cancer’s adverse effects on a person’s life. Everyone who has received a cancer diagnosis can benefit from having an individualized exercise program to improve their outcomes and reduce adverse effects.

What Now?

Aerobic exercise, resistance training, and mindfulness-based exercise have been shown to decrease some of the common side effects that cancer survivors experience.

But what is actually meant by the word ‘exercise’? Exercise is a specific way of moving that elicits a specific adaptation in the body.

Many programs are trying to help make it easier for clinicians to provide tools and resources to patients and for patients to seek these tools and facilities out themselves.

The Moving Through Cancer Initiative is a website that helps providers in this area. It refers patients to places where their questions can be answered, and proper exercise programs can be provided. Maple Tree Cancer Alliance, Livestrong, EASE, CTTS (if you’re in Texas), MOVE, CANcer-VIVE, and Survivor Fitness are all nonprofits dedicated to education, support, and offering free services or tools for exercise to cancer survivors.

Of course, you should always speak with your provider before starting an exercise program. There may be some limitations or restrictions caused by treatments or surgeries. Generally speaking, though, exercise is always beneficial.

Other Resources:

American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2022. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2022.

Mustian, Karen M, et al. “Exercise for the Management of Side Effects and Quality of Life among Cancer Survivors.” Current Sports Medicine Reports, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2875185/.

Schmitz, K.H., et al. (2019), Exercise is medicine in oncology: Engaging clinicians to help patients move through cancer. CA A Cancer J Clin, 69: 468-484.

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