One in two people will develop cancer at some point in their lives. Improvements in the early detection and treatment mean cancer survival rates have doubled in the last 40 years in the UK, which is great news.
But a solution to help alleviate these effects of treatment and improve chances of survival is being physically active.
Physical activity is increasingly being integrated into the care of cancer patients, and for a good reason. Gone are the days when cancer patients were advised to rest and avoid physical activity.
We now have evidence to tell us that being physically active can improve the wellbeing of cancer patients before, during and after treatment.
For example, if a person is fitter before surgery, this can lead to a shorter stay in hospital and help them tolerate treatment better, so it is more effective.
Our previous research in this area at Sheffield Hallam tells us that people with a cancer diagnosis need support to be active. They are often fearful that exercising might make their health worse.
This is perfectly normal – especially given common side effects from cancer treatments such as pins and needles in their hands and feet, hot flushes and high levels of fatigue.
Combine these issues with the same barriers we all face (e.g. time, motivation) in being physically active, and this might explain why people often don’t return to pre-diagnosis levels of activity without support.
However, we know that increasing activity can make a real difference to their experience of treatment and outcomes from it.
People with a cancer diagnosis should be encouraged to be as physically active as their abilities and condition allow before, during and after their treatment.
Any exercise programme should be tailored to the needs of the individual, but this is especially important for people with a cancer diagnosis. A person’s age, type and stage of cancer, treatment side effects, and other health conditions must be considered.
Historically, services that support people to get fitter prior to treatment and help them maintain this post-treatment have not been a routine part of cancer care in the UK. Encouragingly, albeit slowly, this is starting to change with ‘prehabilitation’ programmes emerging across the country.
This refers to the period between cancer diagnosis, and the beginning of treatment and services are using this window to optimise a person’s physical, nutritional, and psychological health before their treatment begins.
The aim is to get people as mentally and physically ready for cancer treatment as possible. Following treatment, the rehabilitation process supports the patient’s recovery and develops long-term physical activity habits.
A big step towards this in South Yorkshire has recently been taken with the launch of a pioneering physical activity rehabilitation service for people with a cancer diagnosis. The service is funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research and delivered in collaboration with Sheffield Hallam University’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
The programme will help people with a cancer diagnosis prepare for and recover from treatment through physical activity, nutrition and psychological support. It is hoped the programme will help reduce cancer recurrence and increase survival rates in the region as part of a broader system effort to tackle cancer.
Starting in the autumn, the service will commence with patients with lung, colorectal, and upper GI (the oesophagus, stomach and part of the small intestine) cancers but will broaden to include patients with other types of cancer within three years.
I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news, but most of us will face a cancer diagnosis at some point in our lifetime. When it happens to you or a loved one, engaging in exercise can significantly improve your wellbeing and recovery. Thankfully, these days more cancer patients are being encouraged to exercise. Admittedly, there will be days that you don’t feel like but do it anyway. There is too much at stake.
Liam Humphreys is a research fellow at Sheffield Hallam University.
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