In Australia, we are continually getting better at detecting and treating cancer, meaning that more and more Australians are surviving cancer. What this also means is that there is also an increase in the number of patients who are living with the side effects that are unfortunately associated with cancer treatment. Research suggests that one of the most debilitating side effects for cancer patients and survivors is ‘cancer related fatigue’. Cancer related fatigue is defined as a “distressing, persistent, subjective sense of physical, emotional, and/or cognitive tiredness or exhaustion related to cancer or cancer treatment that is not proportional to recent activity and interferes with usual functioning”. Imagine the last time you had one of those really busy weeks, where each day was a struggle based on the workload and you get to Friday absolutely exhausted from the stresses of the week. Now imagine this happening every day when you wake up in the morning without the stresses of work to bring it on. This is the unfortunate reality that many cancer patients and survivors who are afflicted with cancer related fatigue face each day. This fatigue is also often not limited to the duration of treatment, and can persist for many years after completion
With cancer related fatigue being such a major issue facing cancer patients and survivors, there is an increasing amount of research investigating how to treat and manage this effectively. One of the few effective strategies for managing cancer related fatigue is through regular exercise and physical activity. This seems somewhat confusing, how can something that causes fatigue in the short term actually be beneficial in managing chronic fatigue in the long term? We have very good evidence from a number of studies now that suggests this is indeed the case: regular exercise and physical activity is linked to significant improvements in cancer related fatigue. The way that this occurs is still being determined, but might be related to reducing inflammation in the body, as well as improving body composition (increased muscle and reduced fat).
We can think of the fatigue in response to a session of exercise as being a ‘good fatigue’ that indicates the body has been given a trigger that it uses as a signal to adapt and improve. These improvements underlie the reductions in the chronic fatigue, which is the ‘bad fatigue’ that interrupts the individual’s life.
Whilst regular exercise is one of the most effective treatments for cancer related fatigue, like any medicine, it has to be prescribed correctly to get the best benefits. Too little may not be enough to improve fatigue levels, and too much can have the opposite effect and cause further issues. Exercise Physiologists are specialists that utilise exercise to specifically manage conditions like cancer related fatigue appropriately and safely for the individual. At Functional Health, our expert team of Exercise Physiologists are trained to do just this. We consider your individual situation and goals in order to develop a specifically tailored program to address cancer related fatigue as well as other health issues that may be present. This can be done in a number of ways, including supervised exercise using state-of-the-art-equipment in our clinic as well as home-based exercises, depending on your preferences. Most of all, Exercise Physiologists are able to answer all of your questions and concerns about how to safely and effectively exercise throughout and after cancer treatment to maintain and improve your health.
Just like everyone who is facing or has faced a cancer diagnosis has a different journey, there is also no ‘one size fits all’ approach to exercise. As mentioned above, cancer related fatigue is a long-term problem that requires a long-term solution. Engaging in a habit of regular exercise and physical activity is often not an easy thing to do and finding the time to do this is often one of the biggest barriers. This is where having an expert in the use of exercise can be helpful: someone who can offer alternatives and solutions, give you advice about what to do and how much to do and someone who can give you the motivation to continue when things become tougher. Exercise should always be based on your individual preferences, interests and circumstances, because that is the key to maintaining it in the long term, which is the ultimate goal for improving not just cancer related fatigue, but health in general.