Oregon Health and Science University has been awarded a five-year grant to look at the benefits of exercise for cancer patients who workout with a significant other.
The National Cancer Institute wants to know if having a workout companion increases the likelihood of committing to exercise and whether it reduces the amount of medication a patient needs.
There’s even hope it might reduce the number of appointments the patient needs with their doctor.
But one of the biggest side effects of cancer is fatigue. And exercise is usually one of the furthest things from a sufferer’s mind. In fact, 20 years ago exercise was contraindicated for cancer patients, meaning doctors told them not to exercise and to rest instead.
But a series of recent studies have shown that exercise is as effective as drugs for cancer symptoms like fatigue, nausea, vomiting and sleep loss.
So the question is: What’s the best way to get a cancer patient to exercise?
OHSU research professor Kerri Winters-Stone says she was recently working on a prostate cancer study and noticed that when her patients exercised in pairs, they became close friends. She says it seemed to help them get through the physical and emotional stress associated with the disease.
She knew that the spouses of cancer patients often struggle with their own medical problems and could also benefit from exercise.
“Caregivers have higher rates of mortality, higher rates of chronic disease, obesity (and) inactivity, compared to spouses who are not caring for a sick partner,” she said.
So Winters-Stone ran a small pilot project that put prostate cancer patients and their spouses on an exercise regimen together.
“We thought 'Why not?' We could use exercise to get him healthier: use exercise to get her healthier; and if they did it as a team, their relationship might get healthier too.”
The study proved a big success. Over six months not one of the 32 couples dropped out. A 100 percent retention rate is rare in such studies.
“We think some of that is because of the social bonds that were created … with other couples going through the same life experience,” she said.
The female participants reported more affectionate behavior towards their spouse and they felt less depressed as well.
Winters-Stone now plans to use the new NCI grant to expand on that study by incorporating other cancers, like breast cancer and colon cancer. She also wants to see whether exercising together works as well for men looking after women as it seems to for women looking after men.
The plan is to have more than 260 couples go through supervised exercise programs across the Portland metro area. They’ll use free weights and exercise bands — equipment that can be used at home.
To gauge the effect of exercising together, researchers will monitor muscle mass, physical function, blood pressure and glucose levels.
Winters-Stone hopes the study could be expanded.
“This could potentially work for people who have heart disease. It could work for people who have Parkinson’s,” she said. “It could work for people who don’t have any chronic diseases and want to reduce their risk of diseases."
The study falls under the umbrella of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. Enrollment starts in the fall.