Health professionals are failing to advise cancer patients that exercise helps recovery, according to new research from Macmillan Cancer Support, a leading UK charity.
The Yougov survey for the charity showed that four out of five patients are unaware of the benefits of keeping physically active during and after cancer treatment.
“The evidence has been building over the last five to ten years,” said Dr Anna Campbell, lecturer in clinical exercise science at Dundee University. “But health professionals are not that aware.
“The other problem is they don’t know what to recommend or who to recommend the cancer survivors go to.”
Campbell, an adviser to Macmillan, piloted a trial 12-week aerobic exercise class in Glasgow for women with early stage breast cancer undergoing treatment. The results, published in the British Medical Journal in 2005, showed significant improvement in fitness and muscle strength, shoulder movement, and positive mood. The women also spent fewer nights in hospital and made fewer visits to their GP.
Building on the success of her study in 2005, Campbell launched the CANmove exercise programme for all cancer survivors on Monday, July 16. Funded by Macmillan, and in collaboration with the NHS and Glasgow Life (a charity helping local people get more active), specialists will ensure individuals are given safe and effective programmes to meet their needs.
Campbell hopes this initiative, with a potential huge cost benefit to the NHS, will set a positive example for other cities in the UK.
“It’s unique. It’s a big one. We’re trying to link everyone in so it will become part of a cancer care package,” Campbell said.
Experts say more needs to be done to make doctors aware of the strong evidence of the benefits of being active. However, health professionals lack a good referral pathway for patients to find cancer exercise trainers.
Macmillan is concerned that the important message of keeping active is still not being passed on to cancer patients by doctors. Two in five cancer patients are not physically active at all.
“It is crucial that health professionals encourage people living with cancer to stay physically active,” Ciarán Devane, chief executive of Macmillan, said in a statement about the survey.
“Knowing what you can do to help yourself and your recovery is both encouraging and helpful.”
Jane Maher, chief medical officer of Macmillan, said in the statement, “Many patients will need our help to bust the myth that resting up is always the right thing to do, so they do not miss out on the ‘wonder drug’ of exercise.”
Government guidelines recommend adults should engage in 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week.
Studies have yet to determine exactly how much exercise cancer patients should do.
Cancer Research UK recommends half an hour’s gentle exercise three times a week to aid women’s recovery from breast cancer.
Campbell says studies show those patients with prostate, breast, and colorectal cancer, who have been active after their diagnosis, have seen a reduction in the cancer recurring by about 30 per cent, independent of weight, diet or cancer type.
Professor Mark Batt, president of the Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine at the Royal College of Physicians, said of the Macmillan survey, “It’s not a surprising finding, but nonetheless, alarming.”
Batt says it reveals an underlying problem. “Health care professions are not in the habit of asking about physical activity.
“Historically, there was the thought ‘if you’ve been jolly unwell, have a good rest’, but now we’re coming to the understanding that getting up and being physically active is tremendously important.”
Batt thinks the Glasgow scheme is an excellent idea. “The greatest culture change needs to be every doctor asking every patient about his or her physical activity levels. That will make the biggest difference,” he said.
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