Tailored exercise plans that include aerobic and resistance training can benefit patients with advanced breast cancer, improving their heart function and quality of life while reducing their fatigue and pain, a study shows.
Previous research had shown that exercise helps breast cancer patients who are at the initial stages of their disease. This was the first study to show that it helps advanced breast cancer patients as well.
University of Porto researchers presented the study’s findings at the Advanced Breast Cancer ESO-ESMO International Consensus Conference in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, Nov. 2-4. The presentation was titled “Effects of exercise on cardiovascular fitness and quality of life outcomes in advanced breast cancer patients.”
The research dealt with exercise’s ability to help women being treated for breast cancer that had spread to other parts of their body.
“While the benefits of exercise are generally well established, we know very little about its effects in patients with advanced breast cancer,” Dr. Eduardo Oliveira, a physiology professor at the university, said in a press release. “These are women who may be suffering from severe pain and fatigue that make it difficult to live a normal life. It may also be difficult for them to begin an exercise program without help and support.”
Oliveira is also an exercise specialist at Porto’s Mama Help breast cancer support center.
The study included 15 women, aged 34 to 68, who had not engaged in regular physical exercise before developing cancer. Eight joined a 12-week exercise plan that included an hour of training twice a week. Each session combined aerobic exercise designed to increase the heart rate with weight exercise and arm rehabilitation training. The other four patients continued their therapy without exercising.
Patients who worked out increased their oxygen intake by 12.3 percent during aerobic training — a significant improvement over the control group’s 2.7 percent increase. The exercise group also showed a 37.2 percent increase in power, compared with 3.9 percent in the control arm.
The findings suggested that endurance exercise improves oxygen delivery to muscles and that advanced breast cancer patients can adapt well to this kind of training.
When asked how exercise affected their quality of life, patients who worked out reported a much larger reduction in fatigue and pain than the control group. They also reported more improvement in emotional well-being and ability to carry out daily tasks than the controls.
“In this study, we have demonstrated that these women are able to take part in a well-planned exercise program and that there are measurable benefits to their health and well-being,” Oliveira said. “Unfortunately, there is a lack of awareness among health professionals about the therapeutic effects of exercise, and that needs to change. We also need more sports scientists studying, working and researching in this area.”
The team plans to further evaluate exercise’s effect on advanced breast cancer patients to identify those who may benefit the most. They also want to identify which exercises do a better job of improving patients’ quality of life.
“The effects of exercise in early breast cancer have been well studied, but very little research around the world has focused on its role in advanced breast cancer patients,” said Professor Fatima Cardoso, who directs the breast cancer program at Lisbon’s Champalimaud Cancer Center. “The findings are excellent news for advanced breast cancer patients,” said Cardoso, who chaired the international breast cancer conference. “The fact that it is easy to implement makes these findings potentially practice-changing when confirmed in larger numbers of patients.”