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Oncology experts say cancer patients should take up exercise and chemotherapy

Cancer patients with ACU professor

Get physical: Cancer patients Nicole Cooper (left) and Shelley Heaney (right) join ACU associate professor Prue Cormie leading the push for exercise medicine to be prescribed to all cancer patients. Photo: Elisabeth Tarica/ACU

WHEN mum Nicole Cooper was diagnosed with incurable, stage-four bowel cancer last year, her oncologist prescribed her two things – chemotherapy and exercise.

Old-school medical advice would have been to rest and avoid activity while chemo treatment was undertaken – but not any more.

In between bouts of chemotherapy and surgery, the 33-year-old started lengthy runs and gym sessions using heavy weights.

“I actually found it quite energising – the idea that there was something in my control, that was for me to look after in my treatment plan,” Ms Cooper said, explaining how she hit the gym to tackle her illness head on.

“I’m on a fortnightly chemo regimen and by the eve of my next chemo session I am running five kilometres and lifting some quite heavy weights, and I’ve done personal-bests in the gym since being diagnosed with cancer.”

A year after her terminal cancer diagnosis, Ms Cooper is in remission. Her story backs up the latest Australian research that exercise should be part of every cancer patient’s treatment, and if it’s not, it could actually be harmful.

The Clinical Oncology Society of Australia, endorsed by 25 other cancer organisations, has launched a position statement about the role of exercise alongside surgery, chemotherapy or radiation in order to counteract the negative effects of cancer and its treatment.

The lead author Professor Prue Cormie, from Australian Catholic University, said exercise was the best medicine someone with cancer could take in addition to their standard cancer treatments.

“That’s because we know now that people who exercise regularly experience fewer and less severe treatment side-effects; cancer-related fatigue, mental distress, (and better) quality of life,” she said. “If we could turn the benefits of exercise into a pill it would be demanded by patients, prescribed by every cancer specialist and subsidised by government – it would be seen as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment.”

Prof Cormie, who leads ACU’s Exercise Oncology Team within Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research in Melbourne, advocates getting cancer patients involved in high-quality, evidence-based exercise programs run by accredited exercise physiologists across Australia.

The ability and strength of cancer patients will vary considerably, however, the goal is to attempt to do two to three resistance sessions a week (such as weights) and embark on at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise (such as walking, jogging, cycling or swimming).

Prof Cormie led a recent review of more than 100 studies published in the American Journal of Epidemiology that found mortality rates among those who regularly exercised fell to 44 per cent.

She was instrumental in launching the Australian-first EX-MED Cancer program, a free exercise program for cancer patients designed to help with the side-effects of treatment, increase quality of life and improve survival.

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