08 November 2022
Women with breast cancer can live better lives if they exercise regularly a new Melbourne study has found.
A team from the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute is the first to show that weekly supervised exercise protects women’s hearts from the harm of chemotherapy.
Senior researcher and team leader Andre La Gerche said based on the results, a good exercise program where women were not only supervised, but also motivated to exercise needed to be offered to all women with breast cancer going through chemotherapy.
He said one of the big differences highlighted by the study was that the heart function in women who exercised regularly was better than patients who had usual care.
“It is one of the strongest surrogate measures we have for quality and quantity of life,” Professor La Gerche said.
This is an important finding as cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death in breast cancer survivors and some chemotherapy is known to cause harm to the heart, its blood vessels and skeletal muscle.
Prof La Gerche said many women lose around 10–15 per cent of cardiac fitness during chemotherapy treatment — the equivalent to around 10 years of normal ageing.
This study of women aged 41 to 75 found those who exercised improved their cardiovascular health by eight per cent — or eight years’ of fitness compared to their baseline.
He said some participants had worried exercise would make them feel tired on top of undergoing chemotherapy, but found it gave them energy.
“It has been a fantastic response,’ Prof Le Gerche said. “Every one in this study said their lives had been changed because of it.”
Elwood mum Eleana Sikiotis, 48, joined the trial after she was diagnosed with type HER2-positive breast cancer.
After six months of chemotherapy, radiation, a double mastectomy and ongoing hormonal treatments, Ms Sikiotis is now cancer-free, crediting the “good news” to the trial’s success.
“The chemo saved my life, but the exercise saved my heart and it gave me the gift of more time alive with my kids,” she said.
Ms Sikiotis did up to three supervised sessions at the gym each week and also a couple of weekly walks to improve her cardio fitness.
While the physical aspect largely benefited the mother-of-two’s overall health, Ms Sikiotis also noticed a positive change psychologically.
“I feel permanently changed in my psychology about moving my body and about resilience,” she said.
“Knowing that it was going to change a lot for thousands of women … it gave me a drive for myself.”
The results of the study were considered so important by the American Heart Association it asked for a presentation from the team to be a late inclusion at its flagship science event in Chicago on Monday.
Lead researcher Steve Faulkes presented the results of the study that followed 104 early-stage Victorian breast cancer patients over a year.
It also found exercise helped chemotherapy drugs work more effectively by reducing toxicity.
Dr Faulkes found women who did supervised exercise several times a week for 12 months were not only fitter, but their hearts pumped better.
Prof La Gerche the team would now test other cancer populations, saying they were confident to achieve similar results in other cancers.
The study was published on Tuesday in the journal Circulation.
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