Women should aim for half an hour’s gentle exercise three times a week to aid their recovery from breast cancer

Women should aim for half an hour’s gentle exercise three times a week to aid their recovery from breast cancer, according to early results revealed at a University of Bristol conference on Exercise and Cancer Rehabilitation today.

Currently the standard treatment for breast cancer involves no exercise therapy. However, the initial findings from a Cancer Research UK trial has shown that exercise therapy and lifestyle counselling could hasten recovery and improve the long-term physical and mental well being of women who are recovering from breast cancer.

As more women undergo successful treatment for breast cancer, many are experiencing ongoing side effects after their treatment. These long term physical side effects can include weight gain, insomnia, fatigue, loss of muscle tone, reduced flexibility and loss of libido. These physical symptoms can then lead to feelings of low self esteem, depression, anxiety or lack of confidence.

Breast cancer remains the most common cancer for women in the UK, with nearly 41,000 new cases in the UK every year. This accounts for almost one in three of all cancer cases in women.

Launched in late 2002 the trial is designed to follow over 150 women, randomly divided into three separate groups, through an eight week programme.

The first group took part in an exercise programme designed to suit their physical ability. At each session an exercise therapist also works with the women to support and encourage them to include more physical activity into their daily lives. The second group followed a body conditioning programme but were given no encouragement to do more physical activity, while the third were offered only currently available standard treatment.

After the eight weeks, the women were monitored at three and six months to see whether they continued with their routines and how they rated their health and wellbeing. Those women who took part in the fully tailored exercise plan showed the most positive results, reporting lower depression, an increases satisfaction with their lives and a reduction in their weight.

Standard treatment for breast cancer involves no exercise therapy and side effects related to breast cancer and its treatment are dealt with on an individual basis by a woman’s GP.

The study’s lead researcher, Dr Amanda Daley, based at the University of Birmingham, says: “Many women suffer from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and sexual problems after breast cancer treatment. When it is finished, they also struggle to regain their levels of confidence and feel quite disillusioned. What we’ve been looking at is whether, by including exercise therapy after cancer treatment, we can help women to feel better about themselves and improve their general quality of life.

She adds: “These early results are very positive and show that far from causing fatigue and tiredness, women benefit from this increased activity. Fitness levels, muscle tone and weight can improve and women report having a more positive outlook. The beauty of this type of treatment is its simplicity, it can include something as straightforward as walking your dog.”

Dr Lesley Walker, Director of Cancer Information at Cancer Research UK, says: “If we continue to see encouraging results at the end of the trial, many thousands of women could benefit. The next step would be to then see exercise included in the follow up treatment for as many women as possible, with a personalised exercise routine becoming standard. The more support we can offer women the better.”

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