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Effects of Cancer on Physical Activity


Cancer is a term which encompasses many diseases with over 100 different forms of cancer.  Cancer is defined as, “diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues with a chance of spreading to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems.”³  It is important to understand the common therapeutic approaches to treating cancer and their effects relevant to physical activity.  First, most cancer survivors will receive surgery to remove cancerous cells in varying parts of the body.  This could include minor surgery through the removal of a mole or major surgery through the removal of a large portion of the colon.²  Cancer survivors may also receive therapeutic approaches in the form of radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy.  Hormonal therapies in the form of drug therapy or surgery may also be used for certain cancers including but not limited to breast and prostate cancers.²  For fitness professionals working with cancer survivors, it is important to understand that cancer therapies are always changing and the best way to determine exercise tolerance and prescription for an individual is to comprehend the specifics of that individual’s diagnosis and treatments received in addition to premorbid conditions.²  This can be accomplished by involving the individual’s health care provider when prescribing a safe and effective program for the cancer survivor.

The effects of cancer treatment relative to physical activity may be immediate or persistent lasting years after treatment is completed.  The term “persistent effects” includes both long-term and late effects which may involve “multiple body systems relevant to exercise training including cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, nervous, endocrine, and immune.”²  A sample of the effects of cancer therapies relative to physical activity are listed below:

  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Cardiovascular changes:  damage, increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Pulmonary changes
  • Neurological changes:  peripheral neuropathy, cognitive changes
  • Endocrine changes:  worsened bone health

For a full listing of the effects see Table 1. Persistent changes resulting from the most commonly used curative therapies in the American College of Sports Medicine Roundtable on Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors.²


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