A Quick Look at Cancer in Canada
Cancer has quickly become a leading health problem in Canada, with an average of over 500 Canadians diagnosed each day. Based on the Canadian Cancer Society Statistics at a Glance, 2 out of 5 Canadians (45% of men and 41% of women) are expected to develop cancer during their lifetimes. There are continual advances to cancer treatment that help reduce the burden of cancer on health, well-being, and quality of life. Physical activity is one of the most promising non-pharmacological strategies to help individuals both prevent and/or manage the effects of cancer.
Physical Activity and Cancer Survivorship
Regular physical activity can help improve all aspects of one’s health in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis. Researchers have demonstrated various benefits of physical activity during different stages of cancer:
Diagnosis and treatment stage: Physical activity can help to maintain physical functioning (for example, can help make daily tasks and activities a bit easier), provide an outlet for social support, reduce fatigue levels, help with pain symptoms, improve sleep, maintain or improve heart health, and may help to maintain immunity. Generally, physical activity can help individuals manage cancer and it’s effects.
Post-treatment stage: Physical activity can help reduce recurrence of some types of cancer, can reduce mortality, and certainly helps to improve many body functions that may have been affected during treatment. Physical activity has the biggest impact on quality of life, including improved physical, mental, social, and spiritual health.
In summary, there are a range of benefits associated with physical activity that are identified below. The key to remember is that there is no “right time” to start to be physically active. These benefits can be accrued when physical activity begins.
Generally, physical activity improves:
- immune function
- physical health
- mental health
- muscular strength
- body composition
- sexual functioning
- sleep quality
- blood pressure
- quality of life
- mood and happiness
- body image and self-esteem
- social support and feelings of connectedness
Physical activity also reduces:
- all-cause mortality
- cancer-related mortality
- cancer recurrence
- body weight specific to fat mass
- bone loss
- systolic blood pressure
- resting heart rate
- confusion and memory loss
I Want to Be Physically Active. How much do I need?
Guidelines are based on existing evidence about the safety and efficacy of physical activity during and after cancer therapy. The American College of Sports Medicine recommend that cancer survivors engage in aerobic activity, strength training, and flexibility exercises:
- at a moderate intensity for 150 minutes per week. When doing moderate activity your heart rate and sweating will increase but you will be able to maintain conversation.
- vigorous/strenuous intensity activity for 75 minutes each week. When doing vigorous activity your breathing will be very fast and it will be impossible to maintain a lengthy conversation.
- some combination of moderate to vigorous activities.
- perform activities that work the major muscle groups of the lower and upper body 2-3 times per week.
- Stretching major muscle groups when aerobic and strength training exercises are performed.
Barriers to Physical
Even though these guidelines can be helpful, few individuals in Canada who have been diagnosed with cancer meet these recommendations. There are many common barriers to physical activity including lack of time, motivation, money, knowledge, competence, skill and social support. Individuals diagnosed with cancer also face additional unique and specific barriers that are identified here:
Potential Cancer-Related Barriers to Physical Activity across the Cancer Continuum
|Cancer Continuum Phase||Potential Barriers to Physical Activity|
|Diagnosis||Other life priorities, time management, negative affect and emotions, anxiety, fear of exacerbating condition|
|Treatment (early effects)||Seroma, ascites, peripheral edema, short-term pain after treatment, dry and sore skin, mouth and throat sores, swelling, and lymphedema, fatigues, hair loss, nausea and vomiting, immunosuppression and fear of compromising immunity to postpone treatment, myelosuppression, body image disturbance, depression|
|Treatment (late effects)||Fibrosis, cardiovascular and pulmonary toxicities, hypertension, atherosclerosis, lymphedema, hematologic abnormalities, avascular necrosis, thrombocytopenia, neuropathy, dyspnea, fatigue, joint pain, body image disturbances, depression|
|Post-treatment||Recurrence of another type of cancer, second cancers, cardiac dysfunction, weight gain or loss, bone loss, lymphedema, arthralgias, cognitive dysfunction, menopausal symptoms, reduced health-related quality of life, fatigue, joint pain, body image disturbance, lack of social support, lack of PA knowledge, and psychosocial distress|
|End of Life||Weight loss (e.g., cachexia), motivation, pain, fatigue, cognitive deficits, decreased balance, impaired fine and gross motor skills, shortness of breath, lowered aerobic capacity, deconditioning, muscle atrophy|
Some strategies to help overcome the barriers:
- Engage in physical activity that you feel you can do on any given day. Since treatment side-effects may be out of your control, you need to do what you can and be willing to give up a certain goal or adjust to a new simpler activity or timing of activity based on how you feel.
- Monitor what you do and how you feel after you are physically active. Most of the challenge in being active is getting started, but once engaged people seldom regret exercising. Focus on how you feel after – write down your mood and emotions, and how you sleep during nights when you are more active.
- Segment your activity. You don’t have to be active for long periods of time – there is evidence that shorter bouts of even 5 to 10 minutes are beneficial, so do what you can to be a little more physically active when you can fit it in to your routine and when you can schedule it into your day.
- Use prompts or reminders to do a little bit of physical activity – this might mean leaving yourself a note, or a packed gym bag, or hanging your walking shoes over the door so you can’t leave without taking them.