Exercise and Ovarian Cancer

Physical activity has been touted as important for a whole host of reasons, from bone health to mental health and everything in between. But what are the benefits of exercise for cancer patients, specifically ovarian cancer? And is it advisable for ovarian cancer patients to exercise at all?

As always, it’s important to check with your medical team about any changes in activity or routine, including introducing exercise. If your doctor approves, then yes — you can exercise with ovarian cancer. In fact, it’s an important part of life after diagnosis.

Dr. Heather Leach, Associate Professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University, spoke at OCRA’s Ovarian Cancer National Conference this year about exercise and shared research-based evidence for why it can be beneficial for ovarian cancer patients and survivors to incorporate physical activity into their routine. As you will learn in the video and article below, individuals can see benefits with just moderate-intensity exercise — even brisk walking can be good for ovarian cancer patients.

Benefits of exercise for cancer patients

Exercise is linked to many benefits for cancer patients, including decreased pain and increased energy and strength, as well as increasing quality of life. Studies involving survivors of breast, colon, and prostate cancer link higher levels of physical activity to improved quality of life, which translates to lower levels of fatigue, depression, and anxiety. Furthermore, in these studies, higher physical activity shows an association with improvements in disease-free survival.

The Mayo Clinic reports additional benefits, and notes that “Other studies have found that exercise during treatment can actually change the tumor microenvironment and trigger stronger anti-tumor activity in your immune system. And very recent animal studies have found that exercise can lead to tumor reduction in rodents.”

According to Dr. Leach, health outcomes connected to physical activity in ovarian cancer patients have only been studied more recently, and to a large extent, mirror what has already been shown with other cancer patients. Namely, following the CDC’s recommendations for physical fitness (1.5 hours of moderate activity per week) leads to better quality of life scores (reduced fatigue, depression, and anxiety).

Previous studies looking at physical activity and survival have shown that high levels of physical activity prior to a diagnosis may be related to improved survival rates. But more recent studies, among ovarian cancer survivors, shows that the levels of exercise prior to diagnosis didn’t have as much significance as the levels after a diagnosis.

Does physical activity reduce ovarian cancer?

It is not proven that physical activity reduces ovarian cancer. However, studies among ovarian cancer patients specifically have shown that 1.5 hours per week of moderate-intensity exercise (for example, brisk walking), correlates with a 33% lower risk of mortality in years 1-4 post diagnosis. This is compared to those who reported less than 30 minutes a week of brisk activity. (Important to note: the duration of exercise can be broken up over several days, say 30 minutes/day, three times a week.) 

It has been shown that many ovarian cancer patients see a reduction in physical activity after their diagnosis, so Dr. Leach, who directs the Physical Activity for Treatment and Prevention Laboratory at Colorado State, and her team created an exercise intervention program known as Fitness Therapy for Cancer Program (FIT Cancer, for short). This 8-week program combined weekly group exercise classes with three behavior-change discussion sessions over the two-month period. While it was open to any cancer patient, about half were ovarian cancer patients. And of those ovarian cancer patients, approximately 40% were still undergoing chemotherapy treatment. The goal was for participants to gain knowledge, confidence, and skills to be able to safely exercise on their own. The program focused on goal setting and self-monitoring.

Dr. Leach and her graduate students who helped run the program found that working in community with other ovarian cancer patients was an integral part of the program and led to greater success.

What is the best exercise for cancer patients?

On its website, the American Cancer Society lists recommendations that are supported by the American College of Sports Medicine. They include:

  • Return to normal daily activities as soon as possible after diagnosis and treatment
  • Take part in regular physical activity
  • Start slowly and build up the amount of physical activity over time
  • Build up to at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week
  • Exercise several times a week for at least 10 minutes each time
  • Include resistance training exercise (weight-based) at least 2 days each week
  • Do stretching exercise (ie – yoga) at least 2 days each week

Of course, it is always advised to consult with your physician before beginning any new diet or exercise regimen.

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