Exercise and Therapy Better than Medications for Cancer Fatigue

By Lisa Franchi on March 07, 2017

Fatigue is characterised by feeling of tiredness and lack of energy. And for people who have cancer, this condition can be worse and can last for a long time. Cancer fatigue is most of the time disabling and causes more distress than pain, nausea and vomiting.

People with cancer are usually given medications to deal with fatigue. But according to new research, therapy and/or exercise is better than medications and should be recommended first.

The study, published in JAMA Oncology, analysed the outcomes of 113 unique studies that tested various treatments for cancer-related fatigue. All were randomized clinical trials, the gold standard for evaluating effective treatments. The analysis started with 17,033 abstracts and was whittled down to 113 that met strict criteria of rigorous scientific methods.

The studies involved 11,000 patients, nearly half were women with breast cancer.

Findings revealed that exercise alone, whether aerobic or anaerobic, reduced cancer fatigue most significantly. Furthermore, psychological interventions that are designed to provide education, change personal behaviour, and adapt the way a person thinks, also alleviate cancer fatigue.

Studies that delivered a combination of exercise and psychological therapy had mixed results and researchers cannot say for sure what the best method is for combining treatments to make them effective.

And contrary in today’s practice of prescribing medications, the analysis showed that that drugs tested for treating cancer-related fatigue were not as effective.

“If a cancer patient is having trouble with fatigue, rather than looking for extra cups of coffee, a nap, or a pharmaceutical solution, consider a 15-minute walk,” says lead author Karen Mustian, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate professor in the University of Rochester Medical Centre Department of Surgery’s Cancer Control Program. “It’s a really simple concept but it’s very hard for patients and the medical community to wrap their heads around it because these interventions have not been front-and-centre in the past,”

Mustan and her team have been studying exercise in the context of cancer for nearly 15 years. They’ve looked at various forms of exercise, such as yoga, walking and resistance bands, to improve cancer patients’ condition.

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