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Updated 10:00 AM December 4, 2006
 

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Exercise helps breast cancer patients avoid anemia, fatigue

Women undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer benefit from participating in regular moderately intense aerobic activity, according to a new study conducted at U-M-Flint.

The study has been published in the Nov. 15 issue of Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society. The study was led by Jacqueline Drouin of the School of Health Professions and Studies in the Department of Physical Therapy at U-M-Flint.

The research found that exercise improved the maximum oxygen capacity of patients, and that it also maintained levels of red blood cells, hemoglobin and hematocrit during radiation treatment. In contrast, women who did not exercise experienced declines in their maximum oxygen capacity and in red blood cells, hemoglobin and hematocrit. This is the first study to investigate the effect of exercise during radiation.

In the treatment of breast cancer, localized radiation therapy follows surgical resection of the tumor. Its purpose is to destroy remaining cancer cells in and around the original tumor site. This combination is highly effective in the cancer's treatment.

Side effects from radiation therapy are mild to moderate, ranging from sunburn to an increased risk for cancer of the muscle or a sarcoma. Radiation also causes fatigue, anemia and depression soon after therapy is initiated. These symptoms often are associated with laboratory findings of reduced circulating red blood cells, hemoglobin and hematocrit, which are the means of oxygen transport in the body.

Drouin and her team found that compared to women who did not regularly exercise, women who walked briskly 20-45 minutes three to five times a week during radiotherapy treatment did not experience a decline in levels of hemoglobin, red blood cells and hematocrit. In the aerobic exercise group, mean red-blood-cell levels, hemoglobin and hematocrit increased slightly while they declined in the sedentary group.

"In addition, increases in these red-blood-cell, hemoglobin and hematocrit measures also significantly correlated with increases in peak oxygen capacity," says Drouin. "Study results support the potential for moderate aerobic exercise to be a safe, effective and economical method for improving physical fitness and maintaining erythrocyte levels in females undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer."

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