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Vol 22, No. 06, June 2018   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
The best pill for cancer patients: An exercise regime
Exercise is the ‘best medicine’ and should be prescribed to all cancer patients alongside conventional cancer treatments, says researchers from the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia.
by Lim Wan Er

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” – Joseph Addison.

You’ve heard of it numerous times before – every person should be exercising regularly and eating healthy. Nonetheless, people nowadays always have an excuse to not participate in physical activities. If you are one of those who tend to hold off exercise plans repeatedly, you would be familiar to excuses such as the lack of time amidst hectic schedules or fatigue after completing nine to six desk jobs. Well, it’s never too late to start exercising due to the extensive list of benefits exercising brings. Apart from helping with weight control, reducing the risk of diseases and improving physical appearance, regular exercising has been officially proven to help cancer patients during and after their treatment.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cancer is the second leading cause of death globally with nearly one in six deaths each year. In 2015, cancer was responsible for 8.8 million deaths.6 To this date, medical professionals are unable to pinpoint what exactly causes cancer, although there are five main behavioural and dietary risks that results in approximately one third of cancer deaths. These include: lack of physical activity, high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, tobacco use, and alcohol use.6 On the other hand, there is no absolute way of preventing cancer and it can happen to anyone regardless of gender or age, which highlights the importance of healthy eating and exercising habits in a bid to lower the risk.

World-first campaign: adding exercise in cancer treatment

Published recently in the Medical Journal of Australia and endorsed by more than 20 health and cancer organisations, the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA) has started the world-first campaign to introduce exercise into a cancer patient’s treatment.

The position statement is calling for doctors to prescribe a well-tailored exercise regime to all cancer patients, on top of their usual routine treatment. Typical treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery involve various side effects that can be difficult to cope with, creating physical and mental tension for both the patient and their families. It is by no means easy for any patient to persevere and combat cancer, and it is the wish of every survivor to prevent the cancer from recurring. Many describe cancer as a life-long battle, and they are not wrong – even if patients survived the first bout, there is no knowing when the disease will strike back.

There is consoling news, however – COSA researchers have found out that by integrating exercise, it can help counteract the negative effects of cancer and its treatment. Principal researcher Prue Cormie stated that if the benefits of exercise could be encapsulated into a pill, it should and would be prescribed to every single cancer patient worldwide. It should also be viewed as a “major breakthrough in cancer treatment”.4 There has been “indisputable evidence” which suggests that depriving exercise from cancer patients is harmful. The research points out that people who are exercising regularly generally experience infrequent and less severe side effects from cancer treatment including “cancer-related fatigue, mental distress and quality of life”.1

It has also been proven that physical activity helps to lower the risk of recurrence or death from the disease. Professor Cormie states, “Only 1 in 10 of those diagnosed [with cancer] will exercise enough during and after their treatment. But every one of those patients would benefit from exercise”.4 In the past, cancer was deemed as a serious incurable disease and those with the disease should avoid activity of any sorts, be confined to bed rest and stick to traditional treatment methods. The recent research proves contrary, as affirmed by Dr David Speakman, chief medical officer at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. He mentioned that “the notion that we must protect a patient, wrap them in cotton wool, is old fashioned and not supported by the research”.2

The approach towards combating cancer must transition in order to give patients their best chance at survival – all cancer patients will benefit from the positive results of exercise. Exercise has the same benefits for cancer patients as it does for other adults, including increased fitness level, improved muscle strength, amongst many others.

Where and how to begin

Professor Cormie recommends that an exercise specialist prescribe exercise suited for individualised needs as the type, intensity and volume of exercise vary amongst different people. When physical activity is properly tailored to the individual’s abilities, it is safe and reduces the risk of complications. Nonetheless, it is crucial to note that patients should not start any kind of physical activity without an expert’s prescription, as doing so may result in unneeded strain on the body.

The below depicts the suggested level of exercise for significant health benefits:2

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking, jogging, cycling or swimming each week.
  • Two to three resistance exercise (weight-lifting) sessions each week involving moderate to vigorous-intensity exercises targeting the major muscle groups.
  • Some pointers for patients who just started their exercise regime:
  • Do not be overly anxious; start slowly and progress incrementally
  • Go for ten-minute walks around your block
  • Bring your pet dog to the park for a game of catch
  • Try swimming a couple of laps with breast-stroke leisurely
  • Ask a friend or family member along for your walks
  • Clean up your house at least once a week for some indoor exercise
  • Try taking public transport instead of driving whenever possible
  • Look out for programs suited for cancer patients
However, it must always be kept in mind that you should discuss with a medically certified doctor or therapist for the type of exercise you should take part in, to minimise risk of complications and maximise the benefits.


  • https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/07/cancer-if-exercise-was-a-pill-it-would-be-prescribed-to-every-patient
  • http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-07/cancer-patients-engaging-in-exercise-show-improvement/9733882
  • https://www.nccn.org/patients/resources/life_with_cancer/exercise.aspx
  • https://theconversation.com/every-cancer-patient-should-be-prescribed-exercise-medicine-95440
  • https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/exercise-cancer-activity-recovery-physiotherapist-chemotherapy-prescription-a8339876.shtml
  • http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cancer

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