It can be a daily walk around the block, a few laps in the pool, or a vigorous game of soccer. Studies suggest exercise is extending the lives of female breast cancer survivors, if only by lifting their spirits.
"Exercise empowers these women with a tool that’s always at their disposal," said Dr. Cheryl Perkins, senior clinical advisor at the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (one of the nation's largest organizations dedicated to fighting the disease). A groundbreaking study involving more than 2,100 women was released earlier this year. It found that even moderate amounts of regular exercise, like a half-hour walk every day, could reduce a woman's risk for breast cancer recurrence by 25-50%. "The benefit is correlated with the amount of exercise. The more exercise, the better chances for survival," Perkins said.
The reasons for the positive side effects from physical activity remain unclear. "A biological theory suggests that exercise is a good tool in preventing or reducing the risk of breast cancer because it might reduce excess weight. Excessive weight increases circulating estrogen," Perkins said, “High levels of circulating estrogen greatly increase a woman's risk for breast cancer and breast cancer recurrence.”
There could be other factors involved. "We know that physical
activity acts directly and indirectly in reducing disease,” said
Debbie Saslow, director of breast and gynecologic cancer at the
American Cancer Society. She points out that exercise has also been
shown to lower risks for other cancers, including malignant tumors
in the colon, endometrium, kidney, and esophagus.
Women currently undergoing some form of chemotherapy should consult with their doctor before engaging in vigorous exercise regimens. "Some chemotherapy medications affect cardiac function," Perkins said. "And some affect bone density, especially in older women. You might have bone density problems already."
There may also be limits placed on excessive or strenuous arm
movement among patients experiencing lymphedema (a
treatment-related swelling of the underarm lymph nodes). "Because
of the risk of lymphedema, we don't recommend that patients engage
in very heavy weightlifting, for example," Saslow said. “However,
for most breast cancer survivors who are past the active-treatment
stage, there's no limit to their capacity for vigorous exercise,"
she said. Of course, exercise can be good for the mind as well as
"It simply increases your sense of wellness," Perkins explained. "In the long run, it helps increase your stamina. It's good on many levels."
Perkins should know. She's a long-term breast cancer survivor. She credits regular exercise with helping her stay fit in her fight against the disease.
"I've always been physically active, and get out every day. I have two wirehaired fox terriers and they move a lot. They’re the reason I get moving, even when I don't want to," she said. "And it makes you feel better."
It's fitting that the Komen Foundation sponsors the annual "Race
for the Cure" in cities across America. It enlists the hearts,
minds, and feet of breast cancer survivors and their loved ones in
an effort to raise money for research. "That's the visual symbol
for all this," Perkins said.
"There's a lot we don't know about breast cancer. We don’t know what causes it, what increases your risk and what doesn't," she said. "Exercise is something a woman can do. Evidence is mounting that exercise decreases risk and may make a real difference in survival."
For more on breast cancer, and efforts to find a cure, visit the
Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
SOURCES: Cheryl Perkins, M.D., senior clinical advisor, Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Dallas; Debbie Saslow, Ph.D., director, breast and gynecologic cancer, American Cancer Society
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