Most people understand the difficulty of committing to a new workout plan, but consider the obstacles a mesothelioma survivor must overcome to stay fit during and after treatment.
When you’re suffering from constant fatigue and struggling to breathe, even while resting, motivating yourself to start a challenging exercise routine is likely the least of your worries.
While it may seem best for patients to limit physical activity and rest as much as possible — as doctors once recommended — a growing body of evidence suggests the opposite: Exercise training can have a wide range of worthwhile benefits for cancer survivors.
Research shows a structured exercise routine is not only safe and feasible during treatment, but it can actually help reduce the fatigue caused by cancer or side effects of chemotherapy and other treatments. In addition, staying active can improve physical function and help control a variety of factors that lessen a cancer patient’s quality of life.
“Moderate exercise has been shown to improve fatigue (extreme tiredness), anxiety and self-esteem,” the American Cancer Society website shows. “It also helps heart and blood vessel fitness, muscle strength and body composition (how much of your body is made up of fat, bone or muscle).”
Improving the patient’s quality of life, or general well-being, often is the primary goal of mesothelioma therapy. The cancer is most commonly diagnosed at an advanced stage, when potentially curative treatments are no longer effective.
Although an increasing number of cancer care teams now urge patients to remain as active as possible throughout treatment, each type of cancer presents a unique set of challenges doctors must consider before recommending an exercise routine.
Strong evidence from research confirms physical activity can improve the health of people with cancers of the breast, prostate, colon and ovaries. However, the benefits of exercise for mesothelioma survivors are less clear. Researchers have yet to create a fitness program proven to improve the lives of this patient group.
In an upcoming three-year study, an Australian research team hopes to solve this problem by developing a workout plan specifically tailored to survivors of pleural mesothelioma. The goal of the investigation is to confirm exercise can improve these patients’ quality of life and allay common mesothelioma symptoms like shortness of breath, muscle loss and tiredness.
“I believe that exercise could have a positive impact on the lives of these patients,” Dr. Carolyn McIntyre, a postdoctoral research fellow at Edith Cowan University, told Asbestos.com. “It’s never been done before that we know of, so it’s very exciting to try a novel approach with the aim of improving patient outcomes.”
The Cancer Council of Western Australia funded McIntyre’s study with a $225,000 research fellowship. Her project collaborators include Professor Rob Newton, an expert in exercise as medicine for cancer; and Professor Gary Lee, an internationally renowned authority in mesothelioma and other pleural diseases.
There is limited information available about the study, which will run from 2015 to 2017. Currently, McIntyre and colleagues are planning the study and seeking approval from an ethics committee.
They expect it will include a relatively short exercise program, running from six to eight weeks. Patients will perform supervised exercise two to three times per week during this period.
“We believe that by taking part in the exercise program, participants will notice improvements in different aspects of quality of life, such as physical functioning, role functioning and physical well-being,” McIntyre said.
She also expects exercise will reduce the burden of common mesothelioma symptoms like fatigue and shortness of breath during activity. “So far, mesothelioma patients have been very receptive to the idea,” she said.
While this will be McIntyre’s first time working with mesothelioma patients, she has completed several studies that explored the benefits of exercise for survivors of lymphoma, prostate cancer and lung cancer.
In 2011, she co-authored a journal article that determined progressive resistance exercise training (PRET) is a feasible intervention for lung cancer survivors with potential health benefits.
PRET requires patients to perform a small number of repetitions until fatigue sets in. Over time, as the patient grows stronger, the resistance of the workout or amount of weight lifted is increased gradually, with sufficient rest between exercises to allow time for recovery.
The benefits of PRET for cancer patients include:
Doctors often use PRET to increase the strength of weakened or injured muscles. Roughly half of all cancer patients suffer from cachexia, a condition marked by fatigue and significant loss of weight and muscle mass.
People who participated in McIntyre’s lung cancer study saw noteworthy improvements after about 10 weeks and only 28 sessions. Upper body muscular strength increased by 42 percent, while muscular strength in the lower body improved by 51 percent.
In addition, muscular endurance for the upper and lower body increased by 150 percent and 180 percent, respectively. The authors stated these improvements likely allowed patients to perform more demanding physical activities over a longer time span.
Exercises in the program included chest press, seated row, leg press, shoulder press, leg extension and an abdominal exercise. Patients also used a respiratory training device called the PowerLung to condition muscles in the chest that support breathing.
While the mesothelioma study will not use the same exercises as the lung cancer study, McIntyre said it will incorporate some form of resistance training with the aim of improving strength and physical functioning.
“The incredible thing about PRET is that it is highly effective and can be adapted to meet the needs and requirements of most patients,” she said.
Although the results of the mesothelioma study won’t be published for several years, patients shouldn’t wait to start an exercise program and begin working toward improving their quality of life.
Regardless of your diagnosis, always speak with your doctor before starting any kind of exercise. Your type of cancer, stage, treatments or overall strength and fitness level may limit your ability to work out.
Follow your doctor’s advice closely, and don’t be afraid to start slow. Even low-intensity activities, such as slow, short walks can help improve your health. Perform an activity until your body tells you it’s time to rest, and take short breaks throughout as needed.
As your strength improves, try adding light weights or resistance bands to your routine to help maintain lean muscle mass and bone strength. If possible, include exercises that work large muscle groups, such as your chest, back, thighs and abdomen. Research shows aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming and cycling, can reduce fatigue and help you perform daily activities without complications.
If you’re a mesothelioma survivor living in Australia, consider applying for the upcoming exercise study. The rarity of this cancer makes recruiting participants a challenge, and the researchers hope to develop a program that will benefit patients across various stages of cancer progression.
McIntyre says this type of research “will always be challenging, but that’s also what makes it exciting.”