Breast cancer survivor fitness levels drop

Breast cancer survivor fitness levels waning over time, study finds

Systematic physical engagement is beneficial to all. For cancer survivors, a consistent level of fitness — at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or at least 75 minutes per week of high-caliber exertion, according to national guidelines — is particularly imperative. But unfortunately, research from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center finds that a majority of breast cancer survivors aren’t getting the recommended level of activity 10 years after being diagnosed.  

Spurred by the repeatedly proven association between increased physical activity and lower mortality rates, researchers followed 631 breast cancer survivors aged 18-64 from the west coast (New Mexico, Los Angeles County, and Washington) through the stages of their recovery for 10 years. Interviews and questionnaires were ascertained by each patient a year before diagnosis, as well as two, five and 10 years after enrollment in the program; each woman was a participant in the HEAL (Health, Eating, Activity and Lifestyle) Study, which looks into methods of assuring better breast cancer survival rates.

Key findings were as follows:

All information and data courtesy of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Presentation by PhysBizTech.

"The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors exercise for at least 150 minutes per week. Most survivors may also benefit from strength training exercises at least two days per week," said Caitlin Mason, Ph.D., corresponding author and a postdoctoral research fellow in the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutchinson, in a prepared statement. "For survivors who have not been previously active, we advise that they gradually work up to these recommendations," she said. 

The study cohort was startled most by the extreme drop in activity between five years after diagnosis and 10 years after diagnosis, noting that after analysis of age and body size, there were no other discernable factors to which the drop could be scientifically attributed.

"It seems unlikely that this pattern reflects aging alone given the consistency and magnitude of the trend across all age groups," the authors wrote. "Whether this reflects a cohort effect or a unique aspect of the cancer survivorship experience is unclear."

Researchers were also quick to assume that the inactivity rates — due to the younger subject age-range and minimal smoking aptitude — were underestimated.  

"Our inability to identify many significant predictors of long-term physical activity participation suggests that the factors influencing physical activity behaviors in breast cancer survivors are complex and may differ from those in the general population," the authors concluded "Additional consideration of psychosocial factors and issues related to pain management, fatigue, and specific treatment effects may help to better understand the unique issues faced by cancer survivors and their impact on physical activity participation."

The study was published in the current issue of the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.