One of the most effective interventions for cancer patients is exercise. Increasing fitness can provide some remarkable benefits, many of which have yet to be fully explored by researchers. Among confirmed benefits, patients with better fitness levels have been found to have a higher chance of survival, lower risk of death from any cause, and a reduced risk of cancer recurrence.
Regular exercise can provide these benefits by accomplishing several goals at once. It improves cardiopulmonary function. Increasing circulation and increasing the amount of oxygen in circulating blood ensures better dispersal of drug treatments and quicker elimination of toxins. Exercise also causes physiological changes in hormones and brain chemistry that reduce the impact of physical and emotional stress caused by diagnosis and treatment. The conversion of greater amounts of body tissue into lean muscle confers profound changes in metabolic function.
Studies of the effects of exercise on cancer patients have largely focused on the most common forms of cancer, which generally have the most successful treatments available. Safety has been firmly established in this area, and the benefits are widely considered by experts to far outweigh any risks. A less studied phenomenon is the potential use of exercise for patients receiving palliative care. Can a fitness routine be safe in this circumstance, and can it provide tangible benefits?
Research Begins Addressing Palliative Care
Palliative care is used for terminal forms and stages of cancer and when patients are too old to benefit from active treatment. It may involve some aspects of active treatment, such as chemotherapy for advanced stage lung cancer, but most often palliative care means attempting to reduce the effects of symptoms and enhance the quality of life in the time remaining. Whether it is treatments for mesothelioma or inoperable brain cancer, one of the most debilitating and common complaints of patients receiving palliative care is fatigue. Other symptoms include depression, anxiety, loss of appetite and rapid weight changes.
Exercise has proven capable of mitigating all these symptoms in patients receiving active treatment. A 2000 pilot study on palliative patients showed that a 28-day exercise program was capable of reversing fatigue. One significant finding was that patients reporting the worst levels of fatigue also experienced the greatest reduction in fatigue. They were likewise able to decrease anxiety and improve overall quality of life. Another study in 2006 confirmed and expanded these findings by showing that exercise was effective at increasing functionality.
Appropriate Workout Programs
Patients with short life expectancies typically have a number of limitations in physical functioning. Improper use of exercise can easily lead to injuries that can be devastating for someone with compromised health. Physical fitness experts are often made available to the patients, because they are in the best position to craft appropriate workouts based on individual needs and limitations.
This may entail the most basic range-of-motion exercises, but patients have other options too. Some will be capable of walking or cycling, and other will enjoy participation in low-intensity activities, like water aerobics and gardening. It is important to choose at least one activity that is enjoyable and, if possible, can include family and close friends. Symptom management may take some time to begin, and motivation will be necessary to begin an exercise program while experiencing fatigue.
The good news is that exercise is increasingly understood to by medical authorities to be one of the best and lowest cost forms of intervention for any cancer patient. During palliative care, many patients will have access to physical therapy through insurance, and insurance will most likely cover therapy for all forms of cancer in the near future.