Cancer patients test theory at the gym

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gymCHAPEL HILL -- Six months ago you couldn't have paid Gretchen Hoag to go to a gym. Radiation and chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer had robbed her of her hair, and the idea of being seen in public like that was repellent.

"I would not have felt comfortable," said Hoag, 46, who lives in Chapel Hill.

But today, Hoag is an eager participant in a new program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that hopes to more firmly establish regular exercise as an effective treatment for common and debilitating side effects of breast cancer therapy, including pain, fatigue, depression and anxiety.

Three times a week, Hoag visits a small fitness center in the Women's Gym at UNC, where she works out with a personal trainer. She follows up the exercise sessions with recreational therapy, including biofeedback, designed to help her maintain emotional balance and learn to relax deeply.

Hoag's hair is back now, framing her face with short curls, but even if it wasn't, it wouldn't be an issue. Cancer patients exercise in a small facility closed to recreational exercisers, where they aren't likely to run into anyone except, perhaps, another breast cancer patient.

"It's a really comfortable place for a breast cancer patient to be," Hoag said.

The exercise program, which is free to participants, was established with a grant from the Triangle affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Its founders plan to enroll 42 breast cancer patients, each of whom will stick with the exercise and therapy regimen for six months. The researchers have applied to the national Komen Foundation for a grant to study the efficacy of specific types of exercise and recreation.

"What we would like is to be able to show how beneficial and important these complementary therapies are," said Claudio Battaglini, an assistant professor of exercise physiology at UNC and co-founder of the breast cancer exercise program.

The idea that exercise can be beneficial for patients and survivors of all types of cancers is gaining momentum.

A study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that exercising for 30 minutes four to five times a week after a diagnosis of breast cancer improved the chances of survival and reduced the rate of recurrence. A study published this year in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found regular exercise had a similar protective effect for colon cancer patients.

Both studies observed that exercise reduced cancer recurrences and deaths by half or better. Multiple studies have also established that exercise alleviates cancer treatment symptoms, especially fatigue, which affects nearly all cancer patients.

Battaglini's interests aren't limited to exercise and breast cancer. Supported by a grant from the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, Battaglini is also working with leukemia patients at UNC Hospitals. Workouts take place inside the hospital during patients' inpatient treatment for leukemia.

Battaglini hasn't written up the results from the leukemia program yet, but what he has observed so far is encouraging. He said patients who work out during treatment have had slightly shorter hospitalizations than typical leukemia patients. Instead of leaving the hospital in a wheelchair, as many patients do, all the patients Battaglini worked with have walked out on their own.

"Some of them actually improved their endurance and muscular strength during their hospitalizations," Battaglini said.

Exercise programs for cancer patients are still relatively rare. For now, there are still too many unanswered questions about what types of exercise and recreational activity are most effective, and how much is needed for the patient to see a benefit, said Battaglini, who hopes soon to launch a third exercise program working with lung cancer patients.

"We want to understand the efficacy of our program," he said. "That's what the physicians are looking for."

source AP 

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