Chemotherapy and exercise


Chemotherapy is the most commonly used treatment for cancer, and it is a mutual name used for all types of medicines acting on uncontrollably dividing cells. It is classified into different subcategories with varying targets on cancer cells. However, the mutual focal point for all types of chemotherapy is that it kills cells. It works especially on cells that divide often, such as cancer cells, but also extends to other cells, for example hair and skin cells. This explains why chemotherapy treatments often lead to hair loss and eczema on the skin.

The problem with chemotherapy is that it acts on all cells in the body and as mentioned before, especially on frequently dividing cells. This is problematic, as white blood cells which are a part of the body’s natural defence system, are also killed by chemotherapy. Thus, chemotherapy often leads to a condition called immune-suppression, which means that the body’s defence system against microbes and viruses is limited due to the extensive loss of white blood cells. Suppression of the immune system can weaken the body’s general health condition significantly which is why chemotherapy is often difficultly tolerated. Immune suppression due to chemotherapy can have serious side effects and sometimes even fatal consequences.

One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy is severe fatigue and nausea. These side effects can be held down with regular moderate exercise during cancer-treatment periods. Studies have shown that patients who regularly exercise during treatments with chemotherapy experience 40-50% lesser fatigue. Also, exercise strengthens the immune system, the muscles, bones and tendons of the body, which are often weakened by the cell-killing actions of chemotherapy or through a cancer-surgery. Exercise also helps you keep a stable and controlled weight. Weight is an important factor when it comes to cancer as weight loss can weaken the body’s tolerability against the cancer, while weight gain due to increased body fat has shown to increase the risk of cancer recurrence.

All types of exercise are beneficial but especially cardio exercise has great effects on the body’s general health condition. Cardio excise is the name used for all types of workouts that strengthen the heart – for example walking or running. Since chemotherapy is cardio-toxic (which means it harms the heart and its function) it is important to maintain a healthy heart as much as possible.

The benefits of regular exercise, especially when undergoing chemotherapy treatment, are therefore numerable. It is always important to keep in mind that lifestyle choices can affect both the risk of getting certain types of cancer, but also how the cancer-treatment periods are tolerated. Exercise and healthy lifestyle choices are the cornerstone in cancer prevention and in the fight against the side effects caused by chemotherapy.

by Adile Orhan

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