You get in life what you have the courage to ask for. — Oprah Winfrey
I’m starting a movement! I haven’t ever started a movement, and don’t specifically know what it means to do so, but I’m going to do it anyway. This movement doesn’t have a name yet, and I’ve only gotten so far in planning as to determine that my mission is to circulate it’s core principles to as wide an audience as the oncology community can possibly reach. The idea is simple in theory, and perhaps a little more complicated in execution, but does that mean we can’t do it? Absolutely not. Will it take a substantial grassroots effort, and quite a bit of initial funding? Without a doubt. Will the long and short term benefits have a clinically significant effect on patients outcomes? Research says yes! In short, the central premise of my movement is cancer patients need access to safe, regular exercise, sometimes one on one with a trainer, as long as they have been cleared by their oncologists to do so.
Many patients like myself will be able to exercise independently, but for those who need more supervision, or are new to physical activity, it should be provided as part of cancer treatment protocols. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) held their annual conference a couple of weeks ago, and my Twitter feed exploded with tweets about cancer and exercise, just like last year. This gathering is a big deal in the cancer world, and all of the major players go to present their findings, talk about hot topics in oncology, and get projections for where cancer care is headed. For the last few years the number of presentations and posters regarding exercise oncology have been a source of pride for physical therapists and exercise physiologists, exhilarated by the fact their research is making an impact, and also gathering steam in the form of how to make prescriptive exercise happen. American clinicians leave ASCO filled with inspiration and buoyed by success, but powerless to actually proceed because of the roadblock that guts so many beneficial medical treatments, who will pay, while their counterparts from places like Australia and New Zealand take a very long flight home to determine how to integrate solid new research into practice.
This is why I’m starting my movement, because other countries are successfully using exercise as a component of cancer care, and we should, too. Let me tell you my dream, and if you have any questions about why exercise should be an essential component of most cancer treatment protocols, I encourage you to read back through my old blog post, because I’ve written about this a lot. In my utopian world of U.S. healthcare, when a patient was diagnosed with cancer part of their standard work-up would be a referral to PT or an exercise physiologist, just like going for blood work, scans, or any of the thousand other things you have to do at diagnosis. The clinician would talk to the patient about exercise and specific benefits during cancer treatment and beyond, find out what the patient is doing for exercise and determine how committed they are to their routine, assess for any preexisting debility, then if the patient is willing and shows need, enroll them in a prescriptive exercise program. Prescriptive exercise is exactly what it sounds like, physical activity that is meant to have therapeutic outcomes based on clinical exercise parameters (heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate), and designed by an exercise professional specifically for the individual. Patients who have not had a regular exercise routine in the past would learn how to workout safely and effectively while being monitored for oncological emergencies, or patients who have been physically active in the past but were now considered medically “fragile”, would be able to receive the medical benefits of exercise under the supervision of a clinical specialist. For patients who need a little less assistance, group classes would be made available. Exercise facilities would be adjacent to cancer centers, and/or infusion clinics, and would fall under the umbrella of the medical campus. I can’t imagine a better way to convey the idea to patients and their caregivers that exercise is medicine.
Imagine these patients exercising 2-3 times per week throughout the course of their treatment. Start to finish, say you had the opportunity to work with each person anywhere from 6-12 months on average, teaching people how to exercise for health, helping them to build lifelong movement habits (because exercise is a habit), educating them on movement systems that resonate with them, and on top of it all, improving their treatment outcomes and decreasing risk of recurrence. The social support mechanism of programs like this have the potential to provide incredible psychosocial benefits in addition to the physical ones, allowing patients the opportunity to interact with others undergoing a shared life event. They would find themselves surrounded by other cancer patients, enjoying the opportunity to cheer each other on, talk with others about their experience, and find a community of people facing a similarly sucky circumstance. In addition, this is treatment that is therapeutic for almost all types of cancer as opposed to just one group, so it can be applied to hundreds of thousands of patients. Some will, crudely in my opinion, ask why we can’t send these patients to Gold’s gym, because exercise is exercise, right? Of course it isn’t. 40+ years of research in cancer patients shows that exercise at certain percentages of heart rate max, VO2 peak, etc., provide the most therapeutic benefit, so the assessments and interventions need to be monitored. As well, while they are in active treatment the cancer population needs trained professionals to closely observe for oncological emergencies due to the toxic nature of every single thing happening to them.
Speaking from personal experience, exercise has provided me with the greatest value in terms of my ability to live well, tolerate additional surgeries, and recover, but we all know I have a unique skill set that provides me with the tools to exercise safely and independently, even when I’m in the trenches. From my conversations with other cancer patients I’ve learned many lack the confidence to exercise during treatment (when cleared by their onco), or weren’t aware it was actually safe to do so (also when cleared by their onco). And we all know cancer is incredibly expensive, so hiring an oncology certified trainer at this point isn’t manageable for most, but the medical benefits to healthcare savings and physical health, for both the patient and healthcare system, would warrant the costs. Please note, however, sometimes the cancer takes over, and there’s not a damn thing to be done, so this is in no way to insinuate that those who didn’t exercise would have lived if they had. That’s ridiculous, and while we’re at it, green juice probably won’t save your life either. Look at me, I exercise a lot and have had two recurrences, so I’m not talking a cure, I’m talking something to help you endure. And sometimes to help deliver the drugs more effectively, decrease inflammation, decrease peripheral neuropathy, decrease chemo-related fatigue, decrease risk of recurrence (I said sometimes), and diminish the effects of “chemobrain” (I said sometimes!).
Join my movement! Ask your doctors over and over what they will do to help provide you with physical activity. Ask your medical social worker what programs are available in your area for cancer patients. Ask so many times that it becomes important to the business office, and then maybe one day, it will become important to your insurance provider, and we will all be better off.