Friday, March 9, 2012

Physical Activity and Cancer

This post is a collaboration with David Haas who is the Family Hospitality Coordinator at Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance in Syracuse, New York. He has an abiding interest in exercise and its positive connections with health. But he also has gained some surprising insights from the research literature about the benefits of exercise in reducing susceptibility to some cancers in the first instance as well as for helping those coping with or recovering from cancer. Read on for David's research summary and then my experience with physical activity while recovering from surgery.

Colon cancer:
Research has identified a link between exercise and a significantly reduced risk for colon cancer. In order to achieve the maximum risk reduction, however, one must engage in 30-60 minutes of moderate to rigorous physical activity daily. It is thought that exercise protects against the development of tumors in several ways, including regulation of insulin and other hormones. In addition, physical activity reduces the time the colon is exposed to carcinogens by maintaining proper body functioning.

Breast and uterine cancers: Studies show that these cancers can be reduced through exercise. Particularly in women who have not yet reached menopause, exercise can lower hormone levels, improve the body’s immune response and control weight. Studies nonetheless indicate that the connection between exercise and breast cancer may depend upon a woman’s weight and whether she received hormone replacement post menopause.  

Lung cancer: Research shows that men have reduced their susceptibility to lung cancer through exercise. (The results are less clear in women.)

Turning to those men and women who have developed cancer,
studies indicate that physical activity can be beneficial. At least one study demonstrates that exercise can help slow the progression of prostate cancer in men aged 65 or older. Women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer may experience less fatigue and more energy through moderate exercise. One study even showed higher survival rates among these women. Physical activity also appears to reduce the chance of recurrence and increase survival in those with colon cancer.

When possible, therefore, the victims of mesothelioma are encouraged to exercise in order to help them deal with the effects of treatment. This statement seems to apply to anyone fighting or recuperating from cancer.

NB: A public statement released in 2010 by a panel of 13 researchers focused on the benefits of physical activity in dealing with cancer. The panel lauded the preventative and curative effects.  The results of numerous studies on this issue are included in a report entitled Physical Activity and Cancer available from the National Cancer Institute at
I am glad that David interchanged the terms “exercise” and “physical activity.” As a former couch potato I still hate the word exercise. But the term physical activity has taken on a whole new meaning for me – one I actually embrace – in my recuperation from cancer surgery.

My Visiting Nurse Association physical therapist (PT) and occupational therapist (OT) had me doing some kind of physical activity during each of their visits despite my extensive and complicated abdominal surgery. It was as little as raising my arms above my head, doing exercises with my legs in bed or making shoulder-shrugging movements. All were very difficult at first.

Then they gently but firmly prodded me to use my walker to walk along the hall and around the free space in my bedroom. These are pretty confined spaces. But walk back and forth and around I did, first for one minute (I was so weak), then for three minutes and finally for a whopping five minutes. I would be breathing hard, a good sign that my heart rate was up which made other physical activity easier.

And – get this! – those 3- or 5-minute walker walks count toward the 20-30 minutes of daily exercise we are all recommended to log in. I thought I had to exercise for the full 20-30 minutes all at once. Plus, my doctor, my PT and my OT each told me that doing five repetitions twice a day was more effective than doing ten just once. 

These are sweet treats for recovering couch potatoes because they make physical activity doable. Thus I gradually got more active around the house, albeit it gently and to the extent my body allowed. I now putter around which gets me walking and going up and down stairs and from chairs. I reach into places and do arm exercises with cans of soup as weights. All of this is done slowly but definitely actively.

While this may seem like minor activity, all of it has incrementally helped my body as well as my mind to heal from my rugged, complicated surgery and its aftermath. So thanks, David, for reminding us that physical activity is every bit as good as exercise!

© Jean DiMotto, 2012   Website:

1 comment:

  1. Virgil Anderson of contacted me with a request to include this link as a helpful site about mesothelioma cancer. I'm happy to accommodate his request via this comment.