It is estimated that Australians have a 1 in 15 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer by the age of 85. It’s an unfortunate statistic that is made all the more startling when it’s reduced to a 1 in 8 chance among women. In support of national Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Atkins Health is shining a spotlight on the role of exercise physiology in breast cancer treatment. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is the news no person wants to hear. At Atkins Health, we work closely with cancer patients to help alleviate the physical and mental toll of a cancer diagnosis. Maxwell Williams is Atkins Health’s dedicated exercise physiologist specialising in oncology and rehabilitation through exercise.
This Breast Cancer Awareness month, Max has sat down to share his insights into the field of exercise physiology (EP) for cancer care.
What is the role of EP in Breast Cancer care?
Exercise is an important part of a breast cancer treatment plan. Although it may seem like the least of a patient’s concerns following a cancer diagnosis, exercise plays a vital role in maintaining both physical and mental wellbeing. As an exercise physiologist, Max works closely alongside cancer patients on a regular basis. As he explains, the role of an EP is to allow patients to maintain their physical capacity throughout the course of treatment.
“Exercise physiologists work in cancer clinics to allow people going into treatment to leave in the same condition by maintaining their physical capacity, or even improving their capacity so they may leave better for it,” he said. It’s no secret that cancer treatment can take a significant toll on the body. Max explains that the role of EP is to minimise this impact where possible.
“We’re trying to avoid that old narrative where people that used to go through cancer treatments would come out weakened or frail, or potentially having gained weight, or have ended up with another comorbid condition. “My job is to help people come out the other end without an increased risk of gaining other comorbid conditions, while also just helping them feel better.
What are the benefits of a breast cancer exercise program?
The major benefit to exercise for breast cancer patients is its ability to help patients retain their physical capacity through treatment. For patients who have never exercised before, a structured approach can help create positive exercise habits while fostering confidence and self-esteem. “Patients can get brain fog as a side effect of radiation and chemotherapy,” says Max. “Because exercise has a mental clarity effect for everyone, it can be really beneficial in helping clear up some of their brain fog during treatment. “Beyond that, the endorphins and hormones released when you do strength training or aerobic training can really help with clarity and alleviating confusion.” Max says patients often find the regularity of a dedicated exercise regime can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety which are common throughout treatment. The benefits extend far beyond the treatment period. Long term regular exercise reduces the risk of cancer occurrence, in addition, it improves patient’s cardiovascular health, blood pressure, and other chronic diseases.
What is involved in an exercise plan for breast cancer?
The Atkins Health team works with patients during breast cancer treatment in both individualised and group settings. A typical exercise plan for patients undergoing surgery is targeted at retaining strength and aerobic capacity, although this will vary depending on the type of surgery a patient undergoes. “For the most part, an exercise plan is a general mix between aerobic exercise across a week, and then a couple of strength sessions,” says Max. “For breast cancer patients specifically, the type of surgery they’ve had, whether it’s a lumpectomy or a mastectomy or double mastectomy, will affect the programming due to any physical restrictions following the surgery.” The structure of an exercise plan will differ from person-to-person Max says it’s important to realise that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to exercise during breast cancer treatment. “Everyone responds differently to surgery. Someone who comes out of surgery may respond completely differently to someone who has just had that same surgery,” says Max. “The exercise plan we prescribe is really about what we find in the initial consultation. We look at whether they’ve had any restrictions during our assessment, and even the history of aches, pains or previous injuries as well.” Because of the tendency for pre-existing weaknesses to be exacerbated during cancer treatment, Max says expert guidance is crucial.
“It’s good to have an EP’s guidance during the process. When patients are going through treatment, any individual pains or injuries will flare up more than more than normal. It’s my role to be able to address these with individual programming.” An emerging area of exercise in cancer care is the use of exercise physiology in the lead up to surgery. As Max explains, the use of exercise prior to surgery has been proven to improve post-operative outcomes. “It’s easier to make any progressions or gains before patients start treatment,” he said. “The goal is to then try and hold those while the patient is undergoing the treatment. It’s essentially about giving the patient a leg up in their recovery.
Atkins Health breast cancer care
Despite having worked in cancer care for over a year now, Max admits he is constantly awed by the resilience and strength of the patients he works with. “I’m not the one doing the exercise or physically doing anything for the patients,” he says. “I’m facilitating and guiding them but they’re the ones exercising and consistently putting in everything for themselves. That’s such a credit to them. “It is so empowering to see what the simplest changes can do for them, and how it can affect and change their lives. “As an EP, you become part of such a big, negative portion in their life. To be able to create exercise habits for them moving on from their cancer treatment – if they say something along the lines of ‘I’ve come out better’ from what’s supposed to be the toughest time in their life – that’s what drives me most.”
If you’re looking for a caring hand to guide you through your cancer journey, Atkins Health can help. Our specialised exercise physiologists can work one on one, or in a group setting, to implement an exercise plan to help ease the burden of breast cancer treatment.