World Cancer Day: The importance of exercise within cancer care

Today is World Cancer Day, a campaign which aims to save millions of preventable deaths each year by raising awareness and education about cancer.

Each day, 396 people will be diagnosed with cancer and 137 will die because of cancer, making cancer a leading cause of death in Australia. However, as the research in cancer more broadly has increased, so too has the research on the benefits of exercise as medicine for cancer prevention and treatment.

“Ongoing research has shown strong evidence that exercise plays an important role in the prevention of cancer and is a safe and effective strategy to counteract many of the negative physical and psychological effects of cancer and its treatment,” explains Anita Hobson-Powell, Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA)’s Chief Executive Officer.

Exercise is Medicine® Australia highlights that the benefits of exercise (both pre- and post-diagnosis) include a reduced number and severity of symptoms and side effects (e.g., pain, fatigue, nausea), improved muscle strength and fitness, improved physical and immune function, improved mood and self-esteem, and more.

There is also a growing body of evidence that indicates exercise after diagnosis may improve long-term survival rates, at least in breast and colorectal cancer.

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

“It’s important to remember that it’s not a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to exercise,” adds Anita.

“Appropriate exercise prescription for those living with cancer needs to be targeted and individualised by an appropriately qualified exercise professional according to patient- and cancer-specific considerations. This is where an Accredited Exercise Physiologist comes in.”

Accredited Exercise Physiologists – also known as AEPs – complete a minimum 4 years of study at university in order to specialise in prescribing and supervising exercise for people who have complex health conditions, such as cancer.

“As exercise specialists, AEPs have the knowledge and skills to design, deliver and evaluate safe exercise programs, and as a result, they play a crucial role in any cancer care team.”

As a resource to aid those living with cancer and their support team, ESSA published a free eBook in 2019 which outlines how exercise provides varying benefits for cancer, with the help of an Accredited Exercise Physiologist. The ‘Exercise & Cancer’ eBook can be downloaded here.

This eBook has been compiled with the help of Accredited Exercise Physiologists either working directly with cancer patients on their recovery journeys or undertaking research in the exercise oncology field. The eBook covers seven of the more common cancer types and also includes a range of positive testimonials from those who have used exercise as medicine in their cancer treatment plan.”

Robyn, now aged 49, completed major treatment in May 2018 for breast cancer and was experiencing significant side effects due to the chemotherapy bringing on menopause and suffering mood problems after starting her medication. Encouraged by her care team, Robyn started attending weekly breast cancer exercise class supervised by an Accredited Exercise Physiologist.

“I have gained so much confidence as well as strength from completing these classes. I’ve also found the community of breast cancer patients to be really supportive. I am now doing exercises at home and doing hill walks, as well as more challenging yoga classes,” says Robyn.

“All of my doctors have impressed on me how important exercise is in the recovery of breast cancer and in preventing recurrence, and I hope that all breast cancer patients access this sort of service.”

If you would like to get in touch with an Accredited Exercise Physiologist in your area, visit the ESSA Search Function to find one in your area.

To find out more about the benefits of exercise for cancer, visit the Exercise Right website.