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Fighting fit to beat cancer
If there’s an excuse to skip the gym, surely it’s being diagnosed with cancer.
But when new mother Nicole Cooper was told she had an aggressive and likely terminal form of the disease, her oncologist prescribed her two things – potent chemotherapy and exercise.
“He said let’s do the chemo and I want you in the gym every day,” Ms Cooper said.
When Nicole Cooper was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer, she was told to hit the gym to increase her chances of living longer.
On Monday, a group of leading Australian cancer organisations became the first in the world to declare that exercise should be prescribed as a standard part of cancer treatment.
Led by the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia, the new position statement means that not only should exercise be encouraged by GPs, specialists and nurses, but that it is vital for cancer patients.
It says all people with cancer should attempt to do two to three resistance sessions a week (such as weights) and embark on at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise (such as walking, jogging, cycling or swimming).
While it will not be possible for everyone, the recommendations respond to mounting scientific evidence that exercise can drastically improve people’s chances of survival, in one study by up to 44 per cent.
Calls to prescribe exercise for cancer patients
When Nicole Cooper was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer last year, instead of taking time to rest, she hit the gym hard in hope of tackling her illness head on.
It can also help stop cancers returning, reduce nasty treatment side-effects and improve people’s overall feeling of wellbeing.
“The original thought that we would have to protect the patient and encourage rest has been completely turned on its head,” said Professor Prue Cormie, an exercise physiologist and lead author of the new position statement.
“We are talking about a dramatic change in how cancer is treated.”
When she was diagnosed with stage-four bowel cancer in March last year, Ms Cooper, 33, had only recently become a first-time mother.
The disease was originally identified in her liver, where the cancer had aggressively spread.
“On that first MRI they could pick up somewhere between 11 and 12 tumours. There were more tumours than there was liver,” Ms Cooper said.
Sometimes Nicole Cooper just did some gentle exercises, other days it was more strenuous.
At first her oncologist said that because her liver was inoperable there was nothing more they could do other than put her on a palliative chemotherapy treatment, that might give her two or three years of life.
“It was devastating,” she said.
“I had an eight-month-old baby. I had just finished an MBA. I’m happily married. I was at the high point of my life.”
But after seeking a second opinion, she was offered a sliver of hope. Another oncologist was willing to put her on an aggressive chemotherapy regime on the small chance that it could shrink the tumours throughout her body enough to operate.
“He said 'we want to prepare you to take the maximum amount of drug you can get into your body, and the only thing in your control is exercise',” Ms Cooper said.
“It will get the blood moving, carry the drugs through your body and allow you to process more of the drugs more effectively.
“Those were my instructions and I followed them.”
So in the depths of “heinous” chemotherapy treatment that made her so sensitive to the cold she couldn’t drink tap water, the management consultant would trudge out to the park in a hat and gloves and exercise.
The chemotherapy killed off all but one of the liver tumours.
Surgery was now possible, and a cure was back on the table.
Ms Cooper is now recovering from surgery to remove a tumour from her lung. She’s still on chemotherapy, but officially in remission.
Her Melbourne oncologist, Dr Prasad Cooray, said he has prescribed exercise to almost all his patients for the past two years – although not all of them were as diligent as Ms Cooper.
Dr Cooray said it was impossible to say how much of a role exercise had played in Ms Cooper's impressive response to treatment, but said to handle the demanding program she had to be in optimum condition.
“I have no doubt, that even if it didn’t help her physically, it helped her emotionally and psychologically,” he said.
The new position statement on exercise for cancer patients is a drastic shift from current practice in Australia, as most cancer specialists still don’t specifically prescribe exercise as treatment, despite being aware of its benefits.
“I think it’s because it doesn’t come in the package. Going off to do exercise is something [patients] usually have to generate themselves,” said Dr David Speakman, the chief medical officer at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.
“What we want to do is put it in everyone’s head – patients and clinicians - that exercise is a therapy. “It’s a treatment for cancer.”