When Nicole Cooper was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer last year, she started to hit the gym hard.
In between bouts of chemotherapy and surgery, the 33-year-old started to work in lengthy runs and sessions of heavy weights.
“I found it energising, the idea that I had something in my control, that I could own,” she said.
“There’s so many unknowns with cancer, but that was my project to work on.”
Ms Cooper is at the forefront of a growing trend in cancer treatment, with some doctors suggesting patients adopt an exercise regime to complement their traditional treatment.
Now, a group of Australian cancer experts want to go further and are launching a “world-first” position statement calling for exercise to be prescribed to all cancer patients as part of their routine treatment.
The Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA) has prepared the Exercise in Cancer Care paper, which states doctors should prescribe particular exercise regimes and refer patients to exercise specialists with experience in cancer care.
The statement has been endorsed by more than 25 health organisations, including the Cancer Council and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and a COSA report on the issue has been published in the Medical Journal of Australia.
“We’re at a point where the level of evidence is really indisputable and withholding exercise from patients is probably harmful,” said Associate Professor Prue Cormie, who is chair of the COSA report group and lead author of the statement.
“If we could turn the benefits of exercise into a pill it would be demanded by patients, prescribed by every cancer specialist and subsidised by government.
“It would be seen as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment.”
The COSA statement finds most people with cancer don’t meet exercise recommendations, and outlines a level of exercise, including:
- At least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise (e.g. walking, jogging, cycling, swimming) each week; and,
- Two to three resistance exercise (i.e. lifting weights) sessions each week involving moderate to vigorous-intensity exercises targeting the major muscle groups.
Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre chief medical officer, David Speakman, said the statement was a significant step forward in the treatment of cancer.
“The notion that we must protect a patient, wrap them in cotton wool, is old fashioned and not supported by the research,” he said.
“Our attitudes to treating cancer … have to change. All cancer patients will benefit from an exercise prescription.”
Ms Cooper said she focussed on exercise as much as chemotherapy and would often go straight from her chemo session to the gym.
She describes both as “potentially life-saving” and is now officially in remission.
“I’ve done personal bests in the gym since being diagnosed with cancer,” she said.
“Cancer is a lifelong battle, once you have it you’re kind of with it.
“So you have to plan out your life around how you can live best [and] I’m certainly doing that now.”