Inactivity risks long term health of 1.6 million cancer survivors

A startling new report from Macmillan Cancer Support, ‘Move More’, shows the importance of taking exercise after having cancer.

Doctors fail to inform cancer patients about benefits of exercise

Four key findings in the report are:

Risk of recurrence and of dying from the disease can be reduced by up to 40% by doing recommended levels of physical activity (breast cancer patients); up to 50% (significant levels of activity – bowel cancer patients) ; up to 30% (recommended levels of physical activity – prostate cancer patient) . And all cancer patients can reduce their risk of getting side effects of cancer and its treatment (which include fatigue, heart disease, depression, osteoporosis) by doing recommended levels of activity.

(Activity also helps the lymphatic system to work effectively and people whose lymph nodes  may have been affected by treatment (eg radiotherapy or surgery) may have a lifelong risk of getting this distressing and debilitating condition. (More information available from the Lymphoedema Support Network).

I wish I had known more about my particular risk of lymphoedema and that immobility while travelling and sitting in meetings was physically damaging me (ironically trying to improve health services – ‘user involvement’!). I now have midline lymphoedema, and (lifelong) self management means I have to wear support garments (even in hot weather) and do daily simple lymphatic drainage massage for the rest of my life. I also had a year’s fight to access MLD (Manual Lymphatic Drainage) treatment, which is still not available in all parts of the UK. While many patients and health professionals alike are  still ignorant of the condition.

‘Official’ literature often refers to lymphoedema  ‘as a swelling of a limb’, or even just ‘a swelling of an arm after breast cancer’, when it can affect any part of the body except teeth, hair and nails. It’s worth mentioning here that if you experience any swelling after cancer treatment, it needs to be checked out by those with experience of lymphoedema. Early treatment can be very successful, but it is a progressive condition which, unchecked, can lead to elephantiasis and other distressing conditions.)

Ciaran Devane, Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support said:
‘The evidence in our report, Move More, shows just how important physical activity is to the recovery process of cancer. Yet very little attention to its benefits is given by health professionals or by those commissioning health services.  It is essential that physical activity services are available and ‘prescribed’ to all cancer patients.
‘Cancer patients would be shocked if they knew just how much of a benefit physical activity could have on their recovery and long term health, in some cases reducing their chances of having to go through the grueling ordeal of treatment all over again.
‘It doesn’t need to be anything too strenuous, doing the gardening, going for a brisk walk or a swim all count. Health professionals can refer patients to a variety of services such as physiotherapy, specialist exercise programmes at leisure centres or walking groups.’
Jane Maher, Chief Medical Officer of Macmillan Cancer Support and leading clinical oncologist said:
‘The advice that I would have previously have given to one of my patients would have been to ‘take it easy’. This has now changed significantly because of the recognition that if physical exercise were a drug, it would be hitting the headlines.
‘There really needs to be a cultural change, so that health professionals see physical activity as an integral part of cancer after care, not just a optional add-on.’

About bmitzi

Medical writer, author, artist. Cancer campaigner. Aiming always to improve health services and bring compassion into health care.
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