Exercise and Breast Cancer – Benefits Before, During and After

You probably cannot go more than a week or two without noticing an article touting the benefits of exercise for preventing chronic illness and disease like heart disease, dementia, diabetes, and even breast cancer.  Just this week a study conducted by researchers at Georgetown and Boston University found rigorous exercise could reduce the risk for an aggressive form of breast cancer in African-American women by 47 percent. Today, another study says exercise could help reduce the side effects of treatment as many as 70 percent of breast cancer patients undergo.  Exercise, researchers say, can also strength bone health in older breast cancer patients, both in the short-term and long-term.

Cut the Risk

There are factors outside a woman’s control when it comes to breast cancer risk – age, gender, family history, genetic risk, race, and breast composition. Other risk factors, like the amount of weekly exercise are, for a large part, controllable. Reducing a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer is achieved by addressing lifestyle modifications including: limiting alcohol consumption, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, breast-feeding, limiting hormone replacement therapy, limiting radiation exposure, and exercising. Each has it’s own influence on reducing the risk of breast cancer.

For African-American women with added risk for treatment-resistant breast cancer, new research offers hope to cut that risk dramatically by getting active on a regular basis. Estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer affects African-American women at higher rates than other women and can be deadly. To offset this increased risk, researchers looked at data from the 20-year Black Women’s Health Study to see what role exercise plays. They found participants who regularly exercised at a vigorous level three of more hours as week had a 47 percent lower chance of developing the aggressive breast cancer than those who did not.

Feel Better During and After Treatment

Many women diagnosed with breast cancer have estrogen sensitive tumors – meaning the presence of estrogen helps the tumors grow. Drugs calledAromatase Inhibitors (AIs) lower the amount of estrogen in the body to cut off the food source to the tumors. Post-menopausal breast cancer patients are often prescribed AIs for up to five years after breast surgery to prevent the growth and return of tumors. However, a common side effect of the drug is joint pain, which causes up to half of the women prescribed the drug to stop taking it early.

Researchers wanted to know if exercise could help alleviate the pain from AIs and help increase adherence. Participants of the study who exercised at least 2.5 hours a week along with two sessions of strength training weekly, reported between 20 and 25 percent pain reduction after a year.  While researchers are not able to determine at this point why exercise helped relieve pain, they admit it did not work for everyone in the study. However, this study reveals yet another reason exercise is beneficial following a breast cancer diagnosis and should be part of the conversation between the patient and their health care provider.

Lasting Effects

As previously mentioned, age is one of the uncontrollable risk factors for breast cancer. A woman in her 30s has a 1 in 232 risk of developing breast cancer over the next 10 years, while that risk jumps to 1 in 69 for a woman in her 40s. The majority of breast cancer survivors are 50 or older, the age when other health concerns like bone density becomes a concern. For this age group, maintaining a healthy weight and body composition can be a challenge - compounded by the effects breast cancer treatment that weakens bones, leads to weight gain and reduces lean body mass.

Researchers sought to determine if exercise could help combat bone loss for these older breast cancer survivors in a one-year study of resistance and impact training. They also conducted a follow-up study one year later. They found even those who had stopped the exercise program had improvements in spine bone mineral density.  

Exercise, researchers have found, is both a tool for the prevention of and a compliment to the treatment of breast cancer.

If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer and want to know what exercise program is right for you, talk to your health care provider.