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March 8, 2016

Can time on the treadmill combat cancer? Sloan Kettering experts want to know

Daily Briefing

    Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center researchers are examining whether rigorous exercise can inhibit or delay tumor growth, Lucette Lagnado writes for the Wall Street Journal.

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    Their randomized, controlled study involves 72 women with stage 4, metastatic breast cancer who are receiving standard cancer treatments. Patients with such cancer have an average post-diagnosis life expectancy of about three years.

    In the first phase of the study, researchers randomly assigned half of the patients to do 12 weeks of rigorous treadmill exercises and the other half to complete a moderate stretching program. Researchers will analyze if the women can safely tolerate the workout routines, which are personalized based on each woman's baseline fitness levels. Exercise scientist Lee Jones, who is leading the study, says his team expects to have results from the first phase later this year.

    The second phase of the study will test if patients with intense exercise regimens show improvement in their conditions, defined as tumors remaining stable for longer than expected, improved quality of life, or an overall better patient survival rate.

    Proving a link

    Previous observational studies have found that breast cancer patients who work out have a lower risk of cancer recurrence and are less likely to die from the cancer than women who are not active.

    Other studies, including one co-authored by Jones last year, have found that exercise may reduce tumor growth in animals.

    Exercise appears to cut risk of breast cancer

    However, Jones estimates it could take as long as 15 years to find a definitive link between exercise and cancer progression in humans.

    The theory is that physical activity could decrease cancer risk because it reduces insulin levels, or because it boosts the immune system, which could affect how the cancer grows in the body.

    "Cancer doesn't grow in a vacuum, and what is around the tumor can either support its growth or can inhibit it," says Jennifer Ligibel, an oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

    Exercise and chemotherapy treatments

    There have also been early hints that exercising may help cancer patients tolerate chemotherapy and radiation treatments better. Karen Cadoo, an oncologist at Sloan Kettering, is working with Jones on another study to test if exercise can help ovarian cancer patients cope with chemotherapy side effects.

    On average, 50 percent of women who undergo intense chemotherapy for their ovarian cancer are not able to finish treatment because of severe side effects. Patients who tolerate more rounds of treatment have better outcomes, so Cadoo and her team are testing if exercise could increase patients' tolerance to chemotherapy—and improve their survival rates.

    But there are some cancer patients who cannot tolerate exercise, no matter the potential benefits. Cancers that have metastasized to the bones could increase the risk of fractures, and chemotherapy side effects can leave patients unable to perform even moderate exercise, according to some doctors (Lagnado, Wall Street Journal, 2/29).

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