The Effects of Exercise on Cancer to be Studied with $7 Million Grant

Nearly $7 million in combined grants have been awarded to a researcher at the Yale School of Public Health to examine the effects of exercise on two types of cancer unique to women.

Melinda L. Irwin, Ph.D., associate professor in the division of Chronic Disease Epidemiology received the funding from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to study whether physical activity can affect ovarian and breast cancer prognosis and survivorship.

Irwin believes that a regular exercise regimen—combined with other forms of traditional treatment such as chemotherapy—can potentially have a significant effect on survival, recovery and overall mental and physical health.

“Currently, after patients complete treatment for breast or ovarian cancer — or any cancer for that matter — few, if any, rehabilitation or survivorship programs are available to help them get back to their activities of daily living. An exercise program may not only help alleviate side effects of treatment, but may also confer benefits to overall and cancer-related health,” Irwin said.

In the first study, Irwin will enroll 230 Connecticut women, all of whom have completed treatment for Stage I-III ovarian cancer, into a randomized exercise trial. Half of the participants will be engaged in a regular regimen of moderately intense aerobic exercise (such as walking). They will be monitored for body composition, quality of life and hormone production that is possibly associated with ovarian cancer prognosis. These findings will be compared with those of the other women do not follow an exercise plan. The study will receive $4 million in NCI funds.

Each year some 20,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 15,000 die from the disease. Irwin said that very few studies—and no data—have been published on the link between exercise and ovarian cancer prognosis or survivorship. Irwin hypothesizes that exercise will significantly improve fatigue following surgery and chemotherapy, as well as overall quality of life, and that surrogate and biological markers of survival such as cytokines and growth factors will also improve. The findings have the potential to shape the post-treatment recommendations for ovarian cancer survivors.

The second study will focus on whether an exercise program can ease the negative side-effects associated with hormone therapies that are given to women recovering from breast cancer. Many women who take these hormones suffer from arthralgia, a condition that results in severe joint pain similar to arthritis, and loss of bone density. The side-effects are pronounced enough that some women stop taking the hormones, which puts them at increased risk for poor prognosis.

This four-year study, which will enroll 180 postmenopausal women with breast cancer living in Connecticut, will examine not only if exercise reduces these side-effects, but how. Study participants will engage in aerobic and weight-bearing exercises. This research is receiving $3 million from the NCI.

For both the ovarian and breast cancer trials, women who are approached for participation, but deemed not eligible, will be enrolled in a prospective observational study to examine the combined influence of lifestyle, biological and molecular factors on cancer survival.