The Benefits of Exercise for Cancer Survivors

During surgery for uterine cancer, doctors discovered that Jane Marin, then 50, also had ovarian cancer. She hadn’t been exercising regularly before her diagnosis and during chemotherapy, she felt too nauseated to do much. When she received a call asking if she wanted to participate in an exercise study for women with ovarian cancer, she jumped at the chance.

The American Cancer Society recommends a physically active lifestyle for cancer survivors to decrease the risk of recurrence and improve the quality of life. Many research studies have shown the benefit of physical activity for breast cancer survivors, for example. Melinda Irwin, PhD, MPH, Associate Director for Population Sciences at Yale Cancer Center, conducts research on the role of lifestyle behaviors in cancer prevention and prognosis. Her work has shown that even after women have been diagnosed with breast cancer, they can substantially lower the risk of both recurrence and mortality by exercising. This holds true even for women who don’t become physically active until after their diagnosis.

Based on her findings with breast cancer, Dr. Irwin wondered whether exercise might benefit women diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She knew that anxiety, stress and a poor quality of life are heightened in these patients, but there weren’t any published research studies to determine if exercise might be beneficial.

The Women’s Activity and Lifestyle Study in Connecticut (WALC) was a home-based walking program to test the effect of exercise on quality of life and blood biomarkers associated with prognosis in women who had completed treatment for ovarian cancer.  During the six-month program, Jane followed a walking regimen and participated in weekly counseling sessions by phone with research associate Linda Gottlieb, who is a certified cancer exercise trainer.

For Jane, exercising was empowering and the weekly phone sessions helped to motivate her and overcome any challenges she faced. But there is another reason she wanted to take part in the study: “I wanted to help other women who had ovarian cancer,” she said. “That was what made me stick to the walking regimen.”

Preliminary results of WALC show that exercise improves quality of life and cancer-related fatigue in women diagnosed with ovarian cancer who had previously been sedentary. “To me, a major exciting finding was that the women wanted to participate in the study and they really exercised a lot,” said Dr. Irwin, noting that on average participants exercised 166 minutes per week. Jane found that exercising improved her mood and helped her get physically fit and lose weight. As a result of her experience, she continues to exercise, has joined a gym, and enjoys hiking with her husband and daughter. Best of all, she is cancer free.

Dr. Irwin and her team are currently examining the study results related to blood biomarkers, as well as whether exercise helps improve side effects of treatment, such as lower leg lymphedema. She would like to see lifestyle behavior programs implemented early on as part of cancer treatment plans. In order to do that, however, researchers have to test these programs in patients to find out if they are effective. “There are a lot of brilliant minds, but without a lot of people raising their hands to participate in clinical trials, research couldn’t get done,” said Gottlieb.

I wanted to help other women who had ovarian cancer.