Post-October Awareness (and a little kick in the ass)

October is over, we’re on to November. No more pink, onto lungs (yes, it’s lung cancer awareness month). Except I’m not done with breast cancer awareness.

I spent yesterday having breakfast and lots of coffee with a friend in Des Moines (one of my fave towns, filled with some of my fave people). My friend Sarah has had a recurrence of her breast cancer after 10 years. We talked a lot about cancer, treatments, surgeries, insurance (because anyone who has to deal with cancer or any other serious illness knows that there is always a lot of consideration of insurance – in a way that no one who hasn’t faced serious health issues can). We talked about possibilities. We laughed.

And we talked about exercise. And frustration. Sarah is a serious cyclist. She’s strong and takes great care of her body. We climbed Kilimanjaro together. Fitness is majorly important to both of us, and not just personally. We both understand and advocate vigorously for others to get and stay fit and active. We both understand how important it is for preventing cancer as well as after a cancer diagnosis. And we are both frustrated at how unwilling most people – current patients, long-term survivors, far too many doctors – are to take control of their own fitness.

Many of us are tired of awareness campaigns, but here’s a little awareness that few people know – or choose to pay attention to….

Clearly the best way to beat breast cancer is to prevent it! In 2010, a large meta-analysis of existing studies was carried out in Saudi Arabia and published in the journal Medical Oncology. Drs. Ezzeldin Ibrahim and Abdelaziz Al-Homieddh found, among other interesting things, that regular exercise decreased the risk of developing a primary breast cancer by 20-40%. Results were even more impressive for post-menopausal women: reducing risk by as much as 80%. A different study from the same year, this one carried out at the University of Rochester Medical School and published in the journal Breast Cancer Research, found that the benefits of exercise for reducing risk of breast cancer were the same for women with and without family history.

So, for all the important talk about surgery and drug options for women and men at high risk of breast cancer because of family history, where is the talk about exercise? Why aren’t there magazine articles and news segments about moving more? Why aren’t doctors routinely talking about exercise to everyone who gets genetic testing because of family history? Why aren’t more people getting their butts off the couch and walking?

And for anyone who has already had a diagnosis of breast cancer, there is overwhelming, abundant evidence of a link between regular moderate exercise and better overall outcomes. The same meta-analysis found that post-diagnosis exercise lowered the risk of dying from breast cancer by 34%. There are numerous other studies – the Nurses Study, HEAL study, and others – that show dramatic improvement in breast cancer outcomes for exercisers. Depending on what and who exactly is measured, research shows improvements of anywhere from 35-67%. Improvements generally are better in post-menopausal women, but improvements are still seen in younger women.

And this is all about regular moderate exercise. None of this research says anyone needs to run marathons for benefit. They just need to move more and move regularly. Go for a walk. Ride a bike. Go dancing. Gardening. Clean vigorously. Skip. JUST MOVE!

For a long time, I assumed if people knew these facts, they would get more active. I mean, these numbers are HUGE! These improvements are as good or better than any outcomes for surgery, targeted hormone therapies, chemo, or radiation. So I was always confused by other study results that find that barely 20% of breast cancer survivors are moderately physically active. And most doctors won’t bother to mention the importance of exercise to their patients.

Seriously??!?!? Less than 20%? I just assumed that people didn’t know. But I now realize, after several years of beating this drum, that’s not true. Some people don’t know the facts. But a whole lot do. And don’t care. Too many people would rather sit around and complain about how no one has found a cure. Yes, we need more research. Yes, we need a cure – or cures. Yes, we need more.

But we also need to be responsible for ourselves. Here we have something simple – moderate regular exercise – that can have a huge impact not only on how we feel, but our potential survival. It’s completely in our control. And for the most part, we’re not doing it. We’re not taking responsibility for the things we can.

This was the gist of a lot of my breakfast conversation yesterday. Immense frustration. It’s not that people don’t know. It’s that people don’t care. Or at least they don’t care enough to get their asses off the couch.

Is it a sure thing? Will you beat cancer if you go for a walk? No, of course not. Nothing is a given – not for anything. There are always exceptions, outliers – just look at Sarah and me. But it might help. It might help you.

So here’s my last bit of breast cancer awareness: get your ass moving!


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2 Responses to Post-October Awareness (and a little kick in the ass)

  1. I still read your emails everyday- and I make it a point to get to the gym at least twice a week. I have peripheral neuropathy which is really aggravating when trying to treadmill or whatever- and doesn’t help my balance much either- but I wanted to comment on your article here.

    I went to a lung cancer support group meeting. I was the only one there beside the oncology nurse whose brain I picked to bits. She told me to be very careful not to fall or walk with my dog because I have cancer.

    Yesterday I talked to a nurse and told her I had refused to take drugs for my neuropathy because I had read that the drugs cause fatigue. I told her that when I exercise on a regular basis I feel better and it helps the neuropathy. She said that the longer I can put off using drugs the better. I am glad she agreed with me! HA!

    • admin says:

      You’re doing great, April! I’m glad you persisted and got some encouragement from the second nurse. The first nurse may not be incorrect, but just very limited in her thinking. Of course, avoiding falls is important. But one of the best ways to avoid falls is to have the strength and balance to feel steady and stable. I haven’t seen any studies yet on whether exercise and increased blood flow helps relieve neuropathy, but I do hear anecdotal stories from people that they see improvement with regular exercise. I definitely thnk that exercises that build stability and better balance can help you deal with the effects of neuropathy. Keep up the good work!


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