Exercise is Medicine in Cancer Care


As we celebrate ESSA’s 30 year anniversary, we will be looking at the different health areas of the exercise and sports science industry that have significantly grown over the last decade or two.

One of these is the role of exercise in cancer care and the substantial work achieved by researchers and practitioners who have increased the world’s knowledge that exercise is medicine when prescribed to cancer patients.

Let’s go back a decade
In 2009, ESSA published the first ever position statement in the world on exercise guidelines for people with cancer that stated a clear imperative that exercise prescription should be tailored. This was an important contrast to previous generic recommendations that all cancer patients should try and meet healthy adult physical activity guidelines.

Since then, there has been exponential growth in research evaluating the role of exercise pre-, during and post-cancer treatment, including the research on the benefits of exercise as medicine for cancer.

Recently for an ESSA publication (Activate, June 2020), Professor Robert Newton from the Exercise Medicine Research Institute at Edith Cowan University reflected on how exercise, over time, has been incorporated as a form of cancer treatment – clearly evident within the research world.

“In 2005, my colleague Daniel Galvão and I published a narrative review in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, reporting that there were only 26 scientific papers in existence reporting studies of exercise during or after cancer treatment. As of May 2020, a search of scientific papers with ‘exercise OR physical activity’ AND cancer in the title returns 4021 titles. Confining the search just to clinical trials returns 675 papers.”

What does the research say?
The science suggests that exercise is one of the best medicines people with cancer can take in addition to their cancer treatments. That’s because people who exercise regularly following a cancer diagnosis experience fewer and less severe side effects.

Knowing exercise is important is one thing, but research shows that cancer patients need tailored advice, an individualised program and structured support to be able to exercise safely and effectively during and after their treatment.

A further barrier then, was that most cancer patients who want to incorporate exercise as medicine into their treatment plan don’t know who’s the right health professional to see for exercise advice that is specific to their cancer.
Enter the COSA position statement
In 2018, the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia released a position statement on exercise in cancer care, endorsed by ESSA. This statement featured that best practice cancer care should include referral to an Accredited Exercise Physiologist with experience in cancer. This publication received world-wide media attention and helped to further promote the important relationship of exercise and cancer.

Then in 2019, ESSA released its updated ‘Exercise medicine in cancer management’ position statement which encourages cancer patients to be guided through an individualised exercise prescription that is specific to them, their cancer and their needs.

Closely following this updated position statement and the COSA statement, ESSA released its consensus statement in mid-2019, which discusses how including an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) in your cancer care team can help you improve your physical and mental health and well-being before, during and after your cancer treatment.

In late-2019, ESSA then published its Exercise & Cancer eBook. A free resource for Australians that includes contributions from experts either working directly with cancer patients on their recovery journeys or are undertaking research in the exercise oncology field. The eBook covers a range of the more common cancer types and outlines how exactly exercise is beneficial and the critical role Accredited Exercise Physiologists play in the care team.
Accredited Exercise Physiologists and cancer care
Today, there are now further calls from leading national and international cancer organisations that those living with cancer adhere with evidence-based guidelines prescribed by Accredited Exercise Physiologists, the expert specialists of cancer and exercise.

“Accredited Exercise Physiologists are the most appropriate health professionals to individually tailor the exercise prescription, education and advice required to maximise the safety and effectiveness of exercise for people with cancer.

Furthermore, the peak professional organisation representing all health care professionals involved in the care of people with cancer (Clinical Oncology Society of Australia) has identified that best practice cancer care incorporates a referral to Accredited Exercise Physiologists with experience in cancer care.”
Associate Professor Prue Cormie, Accredited Exercise Physiologist; Principal Research Fellow in Exercise Oncology; Founder of EX-MED Cancer; and Chair of the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia Exercise and Cancer Group.

Testimonials on the power of exercise
A highlight of ESSA’s Exercise & Cancer eBook was the testimonials – stories of everyday Australians who have embraced the benefits of exercise in their cancer journey with the help of Accredited Exercise Physiologists. Here are just a few of the inspiring stories:

Lochlan was diagnosed with Ph+ Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia when he was just seven years old. A normally active and healthy boy was admitted to the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne in January 2018 and spent most of that year in hospital.

Lochlan’s diagnosis was considered high risk and therefore his treatment consisted of high dose chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Lochlan became very weak and lethargic and some days would struggle to even walk to the shower. He lost all the muscle mass in his legs, was not motivated to do any physical activity, and spent most days in bed due to being so unwell.

Lochlan was given a fitness watch for his birthday and almost instantly was encouraged to get out of bed to increase his steps each day. The watch gave him incentives and daily goals to achieve. It was doing these steps and exercises during the most intense time of treatment that helped with his recovery and the side effects that came along with treatment. Lochlan now enjoys weekly basketball with his friends, something that once was a distant dream. Exercise has absolutely helped Lochlan’s recovery and will continue to be a big part of his future. Testimonial provided by Cass, mum of Lochlan

Leo was diagnosed in 2016 with prostate cancer that had infiltrated his bones. After starting chemotherapy and hormone treatment he was experiencing fatigue, nerve pain, muscle aches, weight gain and mood changes. Seven months after his diagnosis, Leo booked into the exercise physiology clinic to help regain his strength and fitness, reverse his expanding waistline, and improve his energy levels. Together with his Accredited Exercise Physiologist, a tailored exercise plan was devised: he would attend the clinic for weekly supervised exercise sessions, along with a home program which incorporated walking, strength, and balance activities, and stretching.

Two and a half years later, Leo credits exercise with changing his life. Though he still experiences pain and fatigue, they are at much lower levels. His strength and fitness have greatly improved over the duration of his treatment, and his weight is gradually decreasing. Testimonial provided by Kate Williams, Accredited Exercise Physiologist

After extensive treatment for breast cancer, Laura was left feeling debilitated, so her breast cancer nurse referred her to the breast cancer exercise group at the University of Southern Queensland. Under the guidance and specially formulated exercise program of an exercise physiologist, Laura was able to meet her personal fitness goals.

As a result of the benefits experienced through her exercise program, Laura maintained the abdominal fat needed to form her new breast, with construction occurring in March 2019. She was independently mobilised by day one and her post-operative physiotherapist was so impressed with her recovery that she no longer had to see them after two visits. In fact, she was discharged by day four, with the normal length of stay for this procedure being 8-10 days.

Laura claims that, if it wasn’t for the support (both with her physical and emotional recovery) and the professional guidance from the exercise physiologists, she wouldn’t have been fit for surgery, nor made a speedy recovery. Testimonial provided by Merendi Leverett, Accredited Exercise Physiologist

If you'd like to find an ESSA Accredited Exercise Physiologist who specialises in cancer care in your area, visit our online search function today.

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Supporting health through exercise for 30 years 

To celebrate 30 years of Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA), we are reflecting on 30 stories which commemorate the profound impact the exercise and sports science industry and its professionals have had on our communities, and how they have benefited the health landscape in Australia.

Click here to read more like this one