Why getting fit could be the answer to beating cancer

“Prehab” schemes that prescribe exercise to cancer patients before they start chemotherapy could double the chance of tumours shrinking, new trials have suggested.

In recent years, the NHS has been piloting initiatives that ask those newly diagnosed with cancer to complete weeks or months of intensive exercise, before treatment begins.

Experts say that getting fit can help the body to tolerate gruelling regimes such as chemotherapy.

But the initiatives have sparked some controversy, as patients are often asked to sign up for the gym within days of receiving a devastating diagnosis. 

The new trial, on patients with oesophageal cancer, suggests that taking part in exercise before undergoing chemotherapy to shrink their tumours may have a significant impact. 

Researchers said similar effects may be seen in other types of cancer, with calls for exercise regimes to be more widely prescribed.

Health chiefs have previously said that such efforts may “prime” the body for recovery, helping patients to be “match fit” before their immune system comes under attack.

An increasing body of evidence points to the effectiveness of exercise in cancer patients, while animal studies have indicated that it may help shrink tumours after chemotherapy. 

Tumour shrinkage significantly greater for exercisers

The findings come from the first study of its kind, published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Researchers were investigating whether rehab could boost the impact of pre-surgical chemotherapy in patients with oesophageal cancer.

Around 10,000 people per year are diagnosed with this in the UK, making it the 14th most common cancer. 

Tumour shrinkage was significantly greater in exercisers compared to those who did not exercise, the trial data show. 

The 40 participants were split into two groups. Half were asked to take part in a structured fitness programme of about 150 minutes of aerobic exercise, plus two sessions of strength training weekly. 

This continued on average for five months, until the day before surgery. During this time, they underwent four rounds of chemotherapy. 

After pre-surgical chemotherapy, the prehab group had higher rates of tumour shrinkage than patients treated conventionally. In total, growths shrank for 75 per cent of the group, compared with 37 per cent of the remaining patients. 

Patients also had a stronger immune response and lower levels of inflammatory chemicals in their blood.

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