For women who have recovered from breast cancer, exercise appears to be the most important lifestyle choice to reduce the risk of death from a relapse. The research involved a review of 67 published articles and recently published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
“Of all lifestyle factors, physical activity has the most robust effect on breast cancer outcomes,” co-author Ellen Warner, of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Toronto, said in a press release. “Weight gain of more than 10% body weight after a breast cancer diagnosis increases breast cancer mortality and all-cause mortality. However, there are good reasons to discourage even moderate weight gain because of its negative effects on mood and body image.”
The authors looked at lifestyle factors such as exercise, weight, diet, and smoking to determine what behaviors women can change to improve their chances of surviving a recurrence of breast cancer.
They conclude that physical activity can reduce the chance of death from a breast cancer relapse by up to 40 percent. Specifically, researchers recommended engaging in at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week, as well as core muscle strength training. Another suggestion was eating a healthy and nutritious diet. The research team noted that no diet is known to reduce the risk of breast cancer, so patients should follow general diet recommendations.
It is hard to isolate why exercise confers such benefits, says Warner, but one possible explanation is that it suppresses inflammation that could otherwise damage cells and increase the risk of cancer spreading. A key recommendation was avoiding weight gain, since it is linked to decreased chance of survival. Another important recommendation was exercising more. As for taking vitamin supplements, researchers recommended vitamin C because it helps maintain bone strength. Chemotherapy and hormone treatments are known to reduce bone density. Breast cancer patients should also stop smoking immediately, and limit their alcohol intake to one drink a day.
“Because it is common for patients to reduce their level of physical activity after a breast cancer diagnosis, it is important for health care professionals to promote and encourage exercise in this patient population,” the authors added. “Simply receiving advice from an oncologist to exercise more has been shown to increase patients’ level of activity.”
It is important to note that patients included in these studies were not only changing their behaviors, they were also receiving conventional anti-cancer therapy. Lifestyle changes alone should not be used in place of adequate treatment under the supervision of a breast cancer specialist.
The authors stressed that their recommendations may not work for everyone with a breast cancer diagnosis because some cancers are more aggressive and may recur despite the most carefully followed lifestyle regimen.
Bottom line: An active lifestyle combined with a healthy diet can reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence. The combination of a healthy diet and physical activity have been linked to a reduction in mortality from numerous diseases.
About the author: Raja P. Reddy, MD is a board certified diagnostic radiologist specializing in breast imaging. He is also a contributing editor for Women’s Imaging Specialists, a leading provider of outpatient women’s imaging services in the greater Atlanta, GA area.