Exercise Oncology

A field so small, it feels at times pretty lonely like I’m a cabin in the woods….

Many people have never even heard of this field, but I assure you it exists. Unlike medicine, this field is very new. In fact, it was just in the late 80s when research really took a closer look at the relationship between cancer and exercise. And, since cancer therapies became more mainstream in the 60s and 70s we’re just now seeing what happens to someone several decades after cancer treatment. We’re noticing that a 70-year-old who has never had cancer has far fewer comorbidities than someone who completed treatment at some point in their life. Even more specifically, adults who had childhood cancer are experiencing different ailments than their peers who did not have childhood cancer.

For a while, people undergoing cancer treatment were told that “rest is best,” and because their bodies were working so hard to fight off the disease, they should not be exercising. What we know now is that resting and never exercising or being active is associated with worse outcomes and more severe side effects from treatment. Being inactive through treatment is also associated with a higher likelihood of recurrence or a second cancer diagnosis and increased risk of comorbidities like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity (all known risk factors for cancer - talk about a vicious cycle).

Side effects like fatigue, pain, and chemo-brain are incredibly debilitating. As you may know, these are the side effects that make maintaining a job or career, and life in general, very difficult. What’s more alarming, is that these side effects can just barge into your life years after you’ve finished treatment. What’s encouraging, though, is that being active can help with all of this. Research shows that being active before, during, and after treatment can have a significant impact on quality of life of a cancer patient/survivor. This is true for all stages, including metastatic cancer. Palliative care could have even more of an impact l if physical activity was a standard part of the plan.

I think a lot of people may feel like this is just quackery, and if that’s the case, that is largely due to the fact that physical activity programs within the cancer continuum are not standard of care. In my time being frustrated as all heck about the lack of awareness the exercise oncology field receives, I’ve met with oncologists, other cancer exercise trainers, researchers, and cancer patients to get an answer as to “why isn’t this part of care??” One typical answer is insurance-related; insurance doesn’t cover it, so they won’t include it in care. Another answer that I feel called to address is the lack of resources available. How can a doctor include this in their patients’ care if they have nobody to refer them to? Bingo. I can help!

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is perhaps most commonly known for their personal training certifications. ACSM is also an organization that is governed by many stakeholders in the physical activity and exercise world; researchers who specialize in areas like behavior change, oncology, physiology, psychology, as well as medical doctors, patients, trainers working in the field, etc. I may sound biased, but I chose to get my Cancer Exercise Trainer certification through the ACSM because I feel that the courses and the exam are well-rounded and as all-encompassing as they can be.

The certification currently does not allow for insurance reimbursement to healthcare providers, but it allows me to work with cancer patients and survivors while being educated about what cancer and its treatment does to the body. Range of motion is limited for many individuals, you are experiencing fatigue on a level like you could never have imagined, you feel totally different and completely unsure about how physical activity is going to affect this.

I am here to help. I am not a cancer patient or a survivor, but I can help you navigate this new normal. I am Master’s level educated in Exercise Science and I want to share the benefits that being active an offer.