Many cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy suffer neuropathy, a side effect that causes pain and numbness in hands and feet, but researchers at the University of Rochester Wilmot Cancer Institute found that it can be eased with exercise.
More than 300 cancer patients were divided into two groups. One group took part in a specialized six-week walking routine combined with gentle, resistance-band training. Their neuropathic symptoms were then compared to those in the other group who didn't exercise.
Those who exercised reported significantly fewer symptoms of neuropathy, which includes shooting or burning pain, tingling, numbness, and sensitivity to cold. The effects of exercise seemed to be most beneficial for older patients, said lead author Ian Kleckner, Ph.D.
Not all chemotherapy drugs cause neuropathy, but 60 percent of people with breast cancer and other solid tumors who receive taxanes, vinca alkaloids, and platinum-based chemotherapies will likely suffer this type of side effect, Kleckner said.
Neuropathy is usually associated with diabetes or nerve damage. There are no drugs are approved by the FDA to prevent or treat neuropathy caused by chemotherapy.
The specialized exercise program, called EXCAP (Exercise for Cancer Patients), was developed several years ago at the Wilmot Cancer Institute by Karen Mustian, Ph.D. Last year, Mustian presented data from a randomized, controlled study of 619 patients showing that EXCAP reduced chronic inflammation and cognitive impairment among people receiving chemotherapy.
Exercise, as both a cancer prevention tool and potential treatment, is a hot topic among the nation's oncologists and their patients.
Study author Kleckner is a longtime drug-free body builder and former college rugby player. He said he is committed to understanding more deeply the benefits of exercise for cancer patients. "Exercise is like a sledgehammer because it affects so many biological and psycho-social pathways at the same time — brain circuitry, inflammation, our social interactions — whereas drugs usually have a specific target," he said.
"Our next study is being designed to find out how exercise works, how the body reacts to exercise during cancer treatment, and how exercise affects the brain."
"Twelve years ago when we started this work a lot of people said it was not safe for most cancer patients to exercise," says Mustian. "Now we know it can be safe when done correctly, and that it has measurable benefits. But more exercise isn't always better for patients who are going through chemo — so it's important to continue our work and find a way to personalize exercise in a way that will help each individual."
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