Beating Breast Cancer

Imagine a drug that cuts cancer risk in half, heart disease risk by 40 percent, alleviates anxiety, improves sleep, aids weight loss, and improves your overall health and longevity. That “drug” is exercise - by far one of the best cancer preventatives.

Antagonizing Cancer With Exercise

It is now a proven fact that as an adjuvant to chemotherapy and radiation, supervised exercise programs can blunt the negative side effects of cancer treatments (nausea and fatigue), relieve depression, reduce stress and rid the body of excess estrogens. In practical terms, exercise for breast cancer survivors has the same antagonistic effect as the drug Tamoxifen, but without side effects like hot flashes, fatigue, vaginal dryness and irregular menstruation.

Researchers have even found that exercise training helps regulate C-reactive protein. A high serum level of this protein indicates inflammation and is a marker for cardiovascular risk, especially in postmenopausal breast cancer survivors.

Scientists also know there is a direct link between exercise, breast cancer and low levels of C-peptide, a marker of insulin production. Excess fat cells tend to stimulate the production of growth factors like estrogen and insulin, which increase the proliferation of cancer cells.

In a Nurses Health Study of 32,000 women, those who had elevated levels of C-peptide increased their risk of developing breast cancer by 70 percent. Exercise and physical activity helps keep C-peptide levels low which means insulin production is low. Clearly, the relationship between fat tissue, insulin, estrogen and tumor cells is complex, but exercise seems to help regulate these factors in a positive way.

Keep Moving

In a recent landmark study, Dr. Michelle Holmes of the Bringham and Women’s Hospital found that compared to physically inactive breast cancer patients, those who engaged in moderate exercise, about three to five hours of walking per week, lowered their risk of death substantially. According to Dr. Holmes, the women who received the greatest benefit from exercise were those suffering from hormone-related breast tumors, the most common form of breast cancer.

Dr. Holmes also found that any amount of exercise, even walking one hour per week, was beneficial in promoting breast cancer survival. While the instinct may be to lie low and rest up, doctors now advise breast cancer patients to get up and move because hormone production is influenced by activity, both directly and indirectly.

The Hormone Connection

Hormones cause the lining of the ducts and lobules in the breast to change. Surgical removal of the ovaries or adrenal glands was once used to manage breast cancer and regulate hormone levels. Doctors now know that the amount of estrogen and progesterone receptors in a tumor determines the tumor’s dependence on these hormones. A tumor is classified as positive or negative based on the number of receptor proteins present. Tumors with positive receptors are easier to treat and are associated with longer survival rates because of advances in medical research.

Today, instead of removing hormone-producing organs, the tumor’s hormone receptors are targeted and blocked with medication. The drug Tamoxifen disrupts the activity of estrogen via this pathway in early stages of breast cancer.

Microscopic Mercenaries

Regular exercise helps the body eliminate excess fat, stimulates the body’s immune and antioxidant systems, and increases natural killer (NK) cell activity. These cells seek out and destroy cancerous cells by releasing toxic enzymes into them. NK cells and exercise are the first line of defense against cancer. Studies evaluating cancer patients’ immune status have shown a direct correlation between increase severity of their cancer and reduced NK cell activity.

Natural Pain Killers

An added benefit of exercise is the release of several different brain chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, phenylethylamine and endorphins. These all play a role in mood elevation, helping to reduce feelings of anxiety, stress and depression.

Endorphins released during exercise stimulate feeling of euphoria and are the body’s natural pain relievers. Dr. Edward Laskowski, a rehabilitation specialist at the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit group practice, says, “Endorphins have the potential to provide the pain-relieving power of strong medications like morphine.” Additionally, exercise can reduce the risk of arm swelling, known as lymphedema, after breast surgery. It also reduces the chances of developing osteoporosis, a potential side effect of breast cancer treatment.

Elements of Exercise

Dr. Paulette Chandler of Harvard Medical School maintains that a typical exercise program for breast cancer patients should be comprised of four dimensions:
1. Aerobic exercise
2. Strength training
3. Stretching
4. Mind-body training

If you are recovering from treatment, first check with your doctor or appropriate health professional who can set up a program based on your individual needs.

Research Studies

Additional studies confirm the benefits of exercise on breast cancer risk reduction and recurrence. Dr. Anne McTiernan of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash. Studied more than 74,000 women engaged in moderate exercise such as walking, biking or swimming a few times a week. She found these activities had the greatest impact against breast cancer. British researchers reported that women who started exercising early in life and continued on into adulthood significantly reduced their risk of developing breast cancer later in life.

Current research also shows that even postmenopausal women can reduce their risk of developing cancer by exercising. Based on the evidence, the American Cancer Society is working on its first exercise guidelines for cancer patients.

Exercise for Life

Exercise training during and after cancer treatment can help participants increase flexibility, enhance aerobic function and improve feelings of well-being in addition to boosting their immune systems. Patients should discuss exercise programming with their physician and consider it as an adjunct treatment and a preventive measure against breast cancer.

This article was first published in American Fitness magazine.



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Imagine a drug that cuts cancer risk in half, heart disease risk by 40 percent, alleviates anxiety, improves sleep, aids weight loss, and improves your overall health and longevity. That “drug” is exercise - by far one of the best cancer preventatives.Imagine a drug that cuts cancer risk in half, heart disease risk by 40 percent, alleviates anxiety, improves sleep, aids weight loss, and improves your overall health and longevity. That “drug” is exercise - by far one of the best cancer preventatives.

Dr. George Redmon