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Physical activity should not be a hurdle for cancer patients

11 November 2015
A leading cancer specialist at CUH Addenbrooke’s is calling for a nationwide research programme to discover why many current and former cancer patients appear to be ignoring advice about leading a healthy lifestyle.

The study by Professor Robert Thomas on 120 patients found only 11 per cent of patients were doing any exercise during recovery from cancer, while 68 per cent were overweight or obese. More than half, 60 per cent, take over-the-counter (OTC) products as an ‘easy fix’ but most OTC products have no benefit.

Professor Thomas, consultant oncologist at CUH Addenbrooke's and Bedford Hospitals, said: ““We know that three hours of exercise per week after most cancers will reduce the chance of relapse by up to 30 per cent.

“We must find out why doctors are failing to persuade cancer patients to live a healthier lifestyle which would give them both a better chance of coping with gruelling cancer treatments and a better chance of preventing a recurrence of the disease.”

Earlier this year Professor Thomas and his team published results of a major review of the international evidence for OTC supplements. It highlighted that many of them, particularly minerals and vitamins, give patients no benefits and some even have increased cancer risks.

Professor Thomas added: “What this latest research means is that doctors are failing to motivate patients into living more healthy lifestyles or signposting them to appropriate nutritional strategies and we need to know why.

“Although this new research finding was disappointing, it is exciting that the UK cancer community is now taking the issue of physical activity seriously.

“This research has helped us determine how better to persuade patients as it highlighted their barriers to exercise. We found patients knew that exercise was healthy but they were worried it was unsafe and could make their symptoms such as arthritis worse. We can now change the emphasis of our information materials accordingly.”

Professor Thomas’s team presented their paper ‘Physical activity levels and barriers to exercise referral among patients with cancer’ at The National Cancer Reseach Institutes conference (NCRI) which, for the first time in its history, included a plenary session on the evidence self-help strategies and exercise.

Expert speakers from around the world reported studies showing how they have a major impact on reducing the risks and side-effects of cancer treatments and lower the risks of relapse.

Professor Thomas, who also chaired the session, together with Stacey Kenfield from California, summarised the data that incorporating exercise, into routine cancer management can have a panacea of benefits - to a much greater extent than previously thought:

• Reduce the risks of blood clots, heart disease and osteoporosis.

• Reducing the risk of constipation, fatigue and hot flushes, peripheral neuropathy

• Preventing weight gain and muscle loss

• Helping mood, self esteem, preventing anxiety and depression

• Overall improve quality of life

• Reduce the risk of cancer relapsing after initial treatments have finished