Women suffering from advanced breast cancer can improve their quality of life by regularly exercising, according to a study by Portuguese researchers.

The study involved 15 women treated for metastatic cancer, the stage of cancer that generally has the worst prognosis. At this stage, treatment can mostly prolong the patient’s life. However, at the same time, treatment side effects, such as fatigue and pain, significantly reduce the quality of life.

The patients involved in the study were aged between 34 and 68 years. They were divided into two groups. One group was put on a 12-week exercise programme, while the control group did not exercise at all. Prior to the study, none of the women was doing regular physical exercise.

At the end of the 12-week period, Eduardo Oliveira, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Porto, Portugal, evaluated the women’s wellbeing using a questionnaire.

Women who were exercising reported an average 21.4-point reduction in pain, compared to an average 2.6-point reduction for women who were not following the exercise programme. For fatigue, there was a 14.4-point reduction in women exercising compared to 2.2 points in women in the control group.

The women involved in the exercise programme reported an improvement of 16.6 points in their emotional well-being compared to an 11 points improvement reported by the control group. Interestingly, the exercising women said they were better able to carry out daily tasks. The average value assigned to the improvement was 14.9 points. In the group that was not exercising, participants reported an average deterioration of 0.1 points.

“In this study, we have demonstrated that these women are able to take part in a well-planned exercise programme and that there are measurable benefits to their health and well-being,” said Oliviera.” This is a small group of patients but the results suggest that this is something worth exploring for a much larger group of women.”

All the women taking part in the exercise programme completed the 12-week experiment, which involved a combination of aerobic and weight-bearing exercises.

The researchers attributed the improvements to the increased oxygenation resulting from the physical activity.

The research was presented at the Advanced Breast Cancer Fourth International Consensus Conference.

“The effects of exercise in early breast cancer have been well studied, but very little research around the world has focused on its role in advanced breast cancer patients,” commented Professor Fatima Cardoso, Director of the Breast Unit of the Champalimaud Cancer Centre in Lisbon, Portugal, Chair of the conference.

“The research shows that participating in a moderate exercise programme for 12 weeks had a good impact on overall quality of life and, importantly, on control of pain and fatigue, which is a common and hard-to-control cancer symptom. The findings are excellent news for advanced breast cancer patients. The fact that it is easy to implement makes these findings potentially practice-changing when confirmed in larger numbers of patients.”