The role of exercise in lowering the risk of various types of cancers has long been studied and established. One of the most-notable studies published in the journal JAMA Oncology stated that five hours of exercise a week can reduce the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women.[1]

While this association holds true for many other cancers too, a new study highlighted the influence of exercise during ongoing cancer treatment and how it can help the patient.

The study which was published in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute was able to show that aerobic exercise slowed down the growth of breast cancer tumors while making the cells more sensitive to chemotherapy.

Cancer & Exercise: How A Little Walking Every Day Can Aid Your Treatment
Cancer treatment including chemo and radiation therapy can have unwanted side effects on the body. From nausea, fatigue, aches and pains, abrupt weight loss and weight gain to the impacts on the nervous system, the list is quite long. However, experts say that incorporating light to moderate exercises in your daily routine can help you get over these side effects as well as help maintain your overall health.

The exponential and untamed growth of tumor cells in the body requires the genesis of new additional blood vessels to provide the expanding tumor with more oxygen. However, this uncontrolled growth can make the blood vessels convoluted around them making a ‘tumble’. This not only chokes the supply of blood to the tumor, but also hampers the flow of oxygen.[2]

While one may think that this is good news, since the tumor cells will die in the absence of oxygen, the picture is otherwise. Dr Mark W Dewhirst, Professor of Radiation Oncology at Duke University School of Medicine and senior author of the aforementioned study explains that hypoxia (too little oxygen in the surrounding environment) can make the tumor cells impervious to treatment making it difficult to treat the cancer. As it goes, chemotherapy drugs and radiation are both known to work better in conjunction with oxygen.

Dr Scott Weiss, a licensed physical therapist, and a registered exercise physiologist, says, “Exercise is not only safe and possible during cancer treatment, but can actually improve your functional ability, and enhance your quality of life. While rigorous exercise can stress the body during treatment, light to moderate exercise is crucial for staying healthy and can even promote a healthier immune system.”

He further adds, “Light and moderate exercise during the course of cancer treatment can not only allow the immune system to recuperate from the ongoing treatment, but also provide relief from the various side effects. A major hallmark of physical activity is that it increases the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the tissues. In short, exercise can alter the hypoxic environment and increase the effectiveness of the treatment.”

Dr Beatriz Amendola, a leading Radiation Oncologist based in Miami, Florida adds, “Exercises can be prescribed to improve range of motion and prevent lymphedema; a chronic arm swelling that affects some breast cancer patients after lymph node removal. It also elevates the mood, offering drug-free relief for the feelings of depression that may accompany a cancer diagnosis.”

Which Exercises Can One Do During Treatment?
Light aerobic exercises, cardiovascular and strength-training exercises can all be incorporated in your treatment exercise regime. However, Dr Amendola cautions, “It is important to discuss with your doctor or physical therapist the type of exercise you are considering to ensure that it is safe.”

What Precautions Should One Take?
Dr Amendola, offers a few tips the patient and the family should be mindful of while considering exercise. For more information, you can visit her website

  • Start slowly and progress incrementally.
  • If you don’t have the energy to exercise for half an hour, break it up; try three 10-minute walks during the day.
  • Look for programs designed for cancer patients. Some health clubs and hospitals offer exercise classes that address the challenges and needs of people with cancer.
  • If on radiation therapy, avoid swimming pools; they can expose you to bacteria that may cause infections and the chlorine may irritate radiated skin.

If you require more validation then even The American Cancer Society recommends exercise to improve the quality of life among cancer survivors. Exercise increases your body’s stamina and energy levels to make you better equipped to regain your life, stay fit and fight cancer.

For more interesting stories, visit our Health page. Read more about Diseases & Conditions here.

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1. Friedenreich CM, Neilson HK, O’Reilly R, Duha A, Yasui Y, Morielli AR, Adams SC, Courneya KS. Effects of a High vs Moderate Volume of Aerobic Exercise on Adiposity Outcomes in Postmenopausal Women: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Oncol. 2015 Sep 1;1(6):766-76. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2015.2239. PubMed PMID: 26181634.

2. Betof AS, Dewhirst MW, Jones LW. Effects and potential mechanisms of exercise training on cancer progression: a translational perspective. Brain Behav Immun. 2013 Mar;30 Suppl:S75-87. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2012.05.001. Epub 2012 May 17. Review. PubMed PMID: 22610066; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3638811.

With a Master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Exeter,UK and a diploma in food science & quality control, Stephlina is intrigued with the intricacies of the human body. She shares a deep interest in human diseases and believes that popping pills is not the only solution to fight an ailment.