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October 2006 Issue

Breast cancer survivor Joyce Lech says remaining active after her treatments helped motivate her during a trying time in her life.
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Exercise Helps Breast Cancer Survivors Feel 'Normal' Again

By Amanda Harper
Published October 2006

Exercise could do more than just keep you in good physical shape. UC scientists believe it may also prove to be a critical component of rehabilitation and recovery for more than 2 million women who are survivors of breast cancer.

Beverly Reigle, PhD, is leading a pilot study to determine whether a regular exercise program—started just one day after breast cancer surgery—can improve the functional abilities and quality of life of breast cancer survivors.

“The assault a woman’s body takes from breast cancer—both from the actual disease and the treatment—affects what she can do physically and mentally,” says Reigle, assistant professor of nursing at UC and principal investigator of the study. “These women have active lives—they’re mothers, grandmothers and professionals in the workforce. Life can’t and shouldn’t stop for breast cancer.”

Researchers are recruiting about 25 study participants 45 or older who have had breast cancer surgery (mastectomy or lumpectomy and lymph node evaluation) and chosen not to undergo immediate reconstruction.

Prior to surgery, a physical therapist measures the woman’s range of motion, upper body strength and arm circumference. This data is used to benchmark strength, flexibility and stamina after treatment. Arm circumference is also used to monitor for lymphedema, a condition in which the lymphatic channels that carry fluid to and from tissue become clogged and swollen.

Women are divided at random into two groups. One day after surgery, supervised by a physical therapist, the experimental group starts an 18-week exercise program that includes light lower- and upper-body weight training. A physical therapist meets with the patient for the first six weeks, and then the women transition into the University Fitness Center’s “Strong Women” program, a more intense group fitness class focused on strength, flexibility and balance.

The control group simply receives an instructional pamphlet and verbal encouragement to do these exercises.

“The problem is that there is no consensus in the medical community on rehabilitation guidelines for breast cancer survivors, so women don’t know what activities they can safely do after surgery,” explains Elizabeth Shaughnessy, MD, PhD, associate professor of surgery at UC and study collaborator.

“This study intervenes at the point of impairment—surgery—to help promote continued physical strength, endurance and flexibility,” she adds. “A low-impact exercise regimen started immediately following surgery may prove beneficial without compromising medical recovery.”

Women like Joyce Lech, diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2005, say remaining active as a survivor was a priority, and this program helped motivate her during a trying time in her life.

“I’ve always been active, so I didn’t want to lose that part of myself because of cancer,” she explains. “My goal was to come out of cancer treatment with just as much as I had going in.

“When I exercised, I felt energized,” she adds. “It felt good to push myself to get a little stronger each day.”

For more information on this trial, contact Reigle at (513) 558-5276.

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