Physical Activity & Breast Cancer: Prevention and Reducing the Risk of Recurrence

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Physical Activity & Breast Cancer: Prevention and Reducing the Risk of Recurrence

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With the ample body of scientific evidence in existence touting the benefits of exercise, it’s unlikely that anyone could make an argument against exercising. It is a well known and well established fact that we should be exercising for better physical and mental health. 

If you grew up in the 80s, like I did, the main purpose of exercise was thought to be weight loss. If you had asked a step-class back then why they were there, I’m willing to bet 90% of them would have given that as their reason for being there. Fortunately, the thinking behind that has shifted a bit. Of course regular exercise DOES contribute to calorie burn, but we also know that it doesn’t contribute as much as was previously believed. Our bodies adapt better and more quickly than we realized and the goal of the body is always to become as efficient as possible. Therefore, it eventually becomes pretty darn good at burning less calories if the same activities are performed over time as we get better at them. So why should we exercise then, right? Oh, let me count the reasons! Incredible books have been written on the why’s and the countless benefits but let’s just take a look at one this month. 

October is breast cancer awareness month. An entire month dedicated to a devastating disease and I think it’s safe to say that this disease has touched many of our lives at some point. Perhaps a family member has suffered, perhaps yourself, perhaps a friend or one of their loved ones. Breast cancer has long and far reaching tentacles. 

Millions of dollars are spent on the research of how to treat breast cancer, but what about what we can do to prevent it? Breast exams? Sure. Mammograms? Definitely. But what else? Where can we cut this disease off at the knees before it has a chance to burrow and fester, silently, under the surface. Nutrition and alcohol consumption can play a part in prevention as well as many other factors not to be overlooked; but, today we are going to talk about the role of exercise in the prevention and long term mortality rates of breast cancer survivors. 

According to evidence from a 2020 study cited by the National Cancer Institute:

“Women who engaged in regular physical activity before their cancer diagnosis and after treatment were less likely to have their cancer come back (recur) or to die compared with those who were inactive.” 

In this particular study, research focused on women with forms  of high risk breast cancer and studied their physical activity levels pre-diagnosis, during chemo therapy, and post treatment.  Using the minimum government required level of activity as a base, the study found that those patients who met the requirements both before and 2-years post treatment showed a 55% reduced chance of recurrence and a 68% reduced chance of death from ANY cause (not only cancer) compared to those that did not. Those that only met the requirements 2 years post treatment (not before) still displayed a 46% decreased chance of cancer recurrence and a 43% reduced chance of death. These are truly striking statistics and evidence of how each one of us can play a part in taking our health matters into our own hands. The study further showed that even low levels of activity which would include walking showed substantial survival benefits. 

But what about prevention? Can exercise play a role there as well? More and more evidence suggests yes. In another  paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology, researchers noted that currently unspecified factors, which reside in muscle and are released during exercise, can actually suppress signaling within breast cancer cells and perhaps even kill the cells themselves. The good news is, the amount of exercise doesn’t seem to matter. Since the factor resides in muscle, anytime you are contracting muscle, release occurs. So, as would follow, the more you are utilizing muscle in any way, the better. What better evidence that movement is medicine! Am I right??

For breast cancer awareness month and for all those survivors we know and love as well as any warriors that we have lost, let’s take the month of October and dedicate it to movement. No amount is too small, no walk is too short. Walk your dogs, dance around your house, throw on a backpack or bike around your neighborhood. Move as often as you can and feel the gratitude that your amazing body is able to accomplish such astounding things! 

Happy Walk-tober! 

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