CU doctors prescribe exercise for cancer patients

Active patients have fewer hospitalizations

AURORA, Colo. - Doctors at the University of Colorado Cancer Center aren't just recommending their patients get exercise, they are prescribing it.  

"I found a little spot on my shoulder," said Shirley Allen, who was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer nearly two years ago. "It had spread throughout my body. I shouldn't even be alive right now."

The 79-year-old Aurora grandmother was part of a pilot program at the CU Cancer Center called Fit2Be Well, combining treatment with exercise.

“I believe that this is the future,” said Dr. Tom Purcell, the medical director at the CU Cancer Center.

He launched the program, teaming with the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, prescribing exercise at part of cancer treatment as a way to combat the fatigue and weakness that often comes with chemo and radiation.

“People shouldn’t wait until chemo or radiation is over,” said Purcell. “Being active can help them finish the treatments.”

As part of the pilot program, participants were teamed up with fitness experts specializing in oncology patients.

Doctors began to notice active patients had fewer hospitalizations, tolerated treatments better and even had improved outcomes, Purcell said.

“Patients who are active in their exercise program who had breast cancer and colon cancer maybe have a five percent improvement in their chance of being alive at five years,” said Purcell.

Allen signed up and hit the pool three days a week for three months.

“She’s done remarkably well with it,” Purcell said. “Maybe it’s due to the exercise, maybe it’s due to her attitude.”

Purcell said they don’t know exactly how it works, but there are theories that exercise may make tumors more sensitive to the immune system.

It’s not a perfect solution, though.  He sees cancer patients who are marathoners and have been active their entire lives.

“I tell them to stay active. Don’t stop doing what you’re doing,” Purcell said.

Combine her attitude with a daily oral chemo pill and exercise, and now, she is alive and lifting, every single day, knowing she fought cancer and really did come out stronger.

"You're told you have cancer, you start thinking right away, ‘Well, I can't do this, I can't do that,’” said Allen. “It just got me kind of back into knowing that I can do things like normal people."

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