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Published on March 05, 2018

Get up and move to fight cancer side effectsGet up and move to fight cancer side effects

Side effects of cancer treatment can vary from person to person, but the one thing that can help to reduce or alleviate symptoms in almost everyone is exercise.

Research has shown that moderate exercise can reduce fatigue by 40 to 50 percent, according to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), and can provide other benefits as well.

“It bolsters your immune system to help fight the cancer cells, lowers your blood pressure, reduces stress, stabilizes blood sugars for diabetics, helps with sleep and is the best medicine for arthritis,” said Kristine Whaples, MS, RCEP, CDE, exercise physiologist with the Living Fit for You! Cancer Wellness Program at Falmouth Hospital. “All of these things can be issues during treatment.”

As with the normal aging process, we lose 10 percent of our muscle mass every decade, she said. Metabolism drops and endurance and strength decrease. When you add in cancer treatment, the process speeds up.

“A woman with breast cancer who is going through chemotherapy and radiation and then maybe a hormonal blockade, (medication to block female hormones) can lose 10 to 15 percent of their muscle mass during that time,” said Whaples. “Men with prostate cancer and taking hormone therapy to suppress male hormones, lose 7 to 10 percent of their muscle mass very rapidly. They start to put on weight and feel de-conditioned.”

All these things can be managed with exercise, she added. While it may be more difficult for patients who have not routinely exercised before treatment, the program is individualized to the patient’s needs and abilities.

Whaples assures potential participants that they won’t be expected to run marathons or go full-force into an exercise program.

“I scale them down quite a bit and I use their fatigue level of one to 10 as a benchmark,” she said.

Most often she finds that when a patient comes in with a higher fatigue level and is on the fence about going to class, they feel better and decide to stay after a 10-minute warm-up. If that warm-up is comfortable, then the exercise will remain at that level for the session.

“The program is more about movement than exercise,” said Whaples.

Features Of The Program

The Cancer Wellness program is:

  • Two sessions a week for six weeks.
  • Each session lasts 1 ½ hours and includes 10 to 15 minutes of cardiovascular workout with walking on the treadmill, biking or using other equipment, working with weights and bands in a group, and education.
  • Patients’ blood pressure, heart rate, and fatigue level are monitored, and they are watched for any unusual symptoms. If a patient complains of increased pain or fatigue, they are referred back to their oncologist for further evaluation.
  • Nutrition and self-care are woven into the education portion and patients are assessed to see if they need a referral to a social worker for financial assistance, support or help with other needs. Patients may also be referred for physical therapy or a consult with a dietician for a nutritional evaluation.

Graduates’ Experiences

Four “graduates” of the 12-session Cancer Wellness program, who continued with their exercise regimen in the maintenance program, all agree that the programs helped them and are grateful to Whaples for all her assistance and support.

JoAnn Coleman, 83, of Falmouth, who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, started the wellness program after her first of four chemotherapy treatments.

“I checked with Dr. Peter Hopewood, my surgeon, and he said I could absolutely do it (the exercise program) if I felt up to it,” she said. “It gave me hope to go on, it really did. If you go for a time without exercising, your body is done for. You just have to keep doing it.

The recipes and videos about relaxation and relieving stress that Whaples handed out to patients were also helpful, according to Coleman.

“I tried a number of recipes, which were very good,” she said.

Bobbi Keane, 80, of East Falmouth, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016. She had surgery followed by six months of chemotherapy, and started the wellness program while she was still going through treatment.

“In this program, you are not stereotyped,” she said. “I’ve always exercised by walking or swimming and I’ve stayed away from the exercise machines. I can’t believe how committed I am now to these machines and the group work-out. I can come here feeling so tired and leave feeling alive. I’ve met the most wonderful people and Kris has been terrific, she is so upbeat and down-to-earth.”

Karen Hendrickson, 68, of Falmouth, said that she wished she had known about the exercise program when she was going through radiation treatment for endometrial cancer.

“It would have been helpful during radiation treatment because I was very exhausted,” she said. “I started before my last chemotherapy treatment following radiation. We were given 12 free sessions, which was wonderful. It was a gift.”

Rick Blessington, 70, of East Falmouth was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2016 and was treated with 38 radiation treatments.

“Debbie Simons, RN (at the Clark Cancer Center) told me about Kristine and the exercise program,” he said. “I’m so glad she did. The exercise program is great, and the group is very cohesive. You develop camaraderie with the other people. It’s an internal support group whether you realize it or not.”

Patients can ask their oncologist to be referred to the Cancer Wellness program, which is free. There is a small fee for the follow-up maintenance program.