Exercise and being fit is an important factor for health and longevity – and now we have identified a critical gap among breast cancer patients: they have much lower fitness than women of similar age without breast cancer.
Why? Recent research we conducted shows that breast cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation, have a negative impact on cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF). CRF is an important predictor of risk for cardiovascular disease. What is more troubling is that women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer are at greater risk for death from cardiovascular disease than from breast cancer after 65 years of age.
Breast cancer accounts for 28 percent of all cancer diagnoses in the United States. That makes this finding indicative of a larger problem – and an opportunity to use exercise training as a means of helping breast cancer patients improve their cardiovascular fitness and quality of life.
It is crucial we have in place oncology rehabilitation programs designed to deal with the loss of fitness during and after breast cancer treatment. Fortunately, we have such a program at the University of Vermont Medical Center and the University of Vermont. It’s called Steps to Wellness – as we have seen positive results in it so far. It is helping cancer patients lead a healthier and longer life.
This free 12-week, twice weekly, individualized exercise program provides cancer survivors with resistance training and aerobic activity. A physical therapist and a medical provider evaluation also is part of the program as well as a cardiologist (Dr. Lakoski, senior author of the current study) who determines survivor’s level of physical fitness and cardiopulmonary health prior to exercise training. (Read one cancer survivor’s Steps to Wellness story)
In our study, we suggest that standardizing VO2max (CRF) data may allow healthcare providers to predict patients at risk for cardiotoxicity that might benefit from exercise interventions.
Amanda Peel is a member of the Larner College of Medicine at UVM Class of 2015. She is the first author on the 2013 study “Cardiorespiratory Fitness in Breast Cancer Patients: A Call for Normative Values,” published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Her co-authors include Susan Lakoski, MD, MS; Samantha Thomas, MB; Kim Dittus, MD, PhD; and Lee W. Jones, PhD.