By James Martin
Cancer care requires teams of highly trained people and loads of specialized technology. Oncologists, nurses, pharmacists. Radio surgery systems, chemotherapy drugs, scanners. But what about adding something as common as a personal trainer and a stationary bike to the mix?
Kerry Courneya, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, thinks physical exercise can make a huge improvement in cancer outcomes – and he’ll be presenting some of his promising research results at the 2012 Beatty Memorial Lecture, this Saturday, Oct. 13, at 10 a.m. in Pollack Hall.
Courneya’s lecture, titled “Physical Activity in Cancer Survivors: A Field in Motion,” draws upon research that’s been underway for more than decade. Courneya traces the genesis of the work to a mid-1990s “chance meeting” with Christine Friedenreich, an epidemiologist with Alberta Health Services. Friedenreich studies exercise as primary cancer prevention, and her conversation with Courneya took a speculative turn: If exercise can help to prevent cancer, might it also be beneficial to cancer treatment and recovery? Nobody really knew.
“When we completed a literature review in 1996 we were amazed at how little research there was on this topic,” recalls Courneya, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Cancer. “The first study was published in the late eighties but there really wasn’t any systematic research until the late nineties and early 2000s. Historically, cancer survival rates were short and treatments were very difficult, with poorly controlled side effects like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It was not obvious to patients or doctors that exercise during treatment was feasible, let alone helpful.”
Although his lab has done studies on a range of cancers, Courneya’s research is primarily focused on breast and colon cancers. His team is following groups of cancer patients over several years. The researchers are looking at whether aerobic exercise (walking, running, cycling) and resistance exercise (weight training) lessen the likelihood of cancer recurrence and mortality.
They’re also studying how exercise might help patients deal with the pain and fatigue that is so often a necessary evil of treatment. It sounds counterintuitive – exercise is hard enough at the best of times, let alone when you’re sick and physically drained – but Courneya says light, slowly-increased exercise regimens seem to be beneficial. “Most patients are advised to rest during treatment,” he says, “but the research shows this exacerbates fatigue, whereas exercise helps.”
The health care community is warming to this idea of patients (gently) hitting the gym. Many cancer treatment centres, including the McGill Cancer Nutrition-Rehabilitation Program and the Jewish General Hospital’s Hope & Cope program, are offering exercise programs to their patients, and even American YMCAs are getting on board. Courneya believes we’ll see exercise become more formally integrated into cancer care in the near future.
“We’re just learning about what types and amounts of exercise are most beneficial,” he says, “but we’ve already seen exciting preliminary findings showing that exercise may be linked to a lower risk of recurrence and death from cancer—and I’ll discuss a large study on this topic at my Beatty talk.”
This is research is funded by the CIHR and the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute.
For more information on the Beatty Memroial Lecture, go here.