More Active, More Immune After Cancer

Cancer patients who exercise after treatment may become better equipped to fight future cancer

(RxWiki News) The tolls of cancer can make it difficult to exercise. But when treatment is done and patients keep up an exercise routine over time, the body can get stronger in a number of ways.

By exercising for several weeks after finishing treatment, the immune systems of cancer patients are better able to fend off cancer from coming back, a study presented at a conference has found.

"Meet a trainer to tailor a personal exercise routine."

T-cells are in charge of the body's immune system. After chemotherapy, these cells typically become senescent, or old, and start to die.

Previous research had shown that the majority of these senescent cells are much less able to fight cancer and other infections.

Researchers, led by Laura Bilek, PhD, an assistant professor in the School of Allied Health Professions at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, aimed to see how exercise affects the proportion of strong and weak T-cells in former cancer patients.

They looked at T-cells in the blood of 16 former cancer patients before and after a 12-week exercise program at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute.

All but one had recently finished their chemotherapy treatment.

Each of the patients had their blood drawn before starting the exercise program and researchers counted the number of strong and weak T-cells they had.

The programs were tailored to the participants so that extra emphasis was placed on areas where they were not as strong.

Areas included cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility exercises that also focused on their posture and balance.

After the 12-week program ended, researchers drew patients' blood and measured the strong and weak T-cells again.

Though the results still need to be reviewed, researchers found that a significant portion of the cells changed from a form that's not as effective at fighting disease to a naïve form that is ready to combat cancer and infections.

The number of weaker cells compared to the number of stronger ones changed favorably in 10 of the participants; it increased in six.

But 10 patients regained greater numbers of the stronger cell kind.

“What we’re suggesting is that with exercise, you might be getting rid of T cells that aren’t helpful and making room for T cells that might be helpful,” Dr. Bilek said in a press release.

With exercise, the immune system may have heightened "cancer surveillance" to better find and destroy budding cancer cells, she said, which highlights the importance of exercise for all, including those with cancer and cancer survivors.

“If exercise indeed strengthens the immune system and potentially improves cancer surveillance, it’s one more thing we should educate patients about as a reason they should schedule regular activity throughout their day and make it a priority in their lives," Dr. Bilek said.

The study was presented October 10-13 at the Integrative Biology of Exercise VI meeting in Westminster, Colorado. 

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Review Date: 
October 15, 2012