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Exercise linked to risk of death in cancer patients


Photo by Petr Kratochvil

Woman exercising

CHICAGO—Researchers have identified a link between habitual physical activity (PA) and mortality among cancer patients.

Engaging in regular PA, both pre- and post-diagnosis, was associated with a significantly lower risk of death for the entire population studied and for patients with 8 specific types of cancer.

However, the association was not significant for patients with other cancer types, including hematologic malignancies.

Rikki Cannioto, PhD, of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York, and her colleagues presented these findings at the AACR Annual Meeting 2018 (abstract 5254*).

The researchers examined the association between habitual PA and outcomes in 5807 cancer patients enrolled in the Data Bank and BioRepository at Roswell Park between 2003 and 2016.

The population was 54.8% female and 93% white. The average age at diagnosis was 60.6 years.

The researchers looked at patterns of PA over time, from the decade before the cancer was diagnosed and continuing for up to 1 year after diagnosis.

Patients who engaged in regular, moderate- to vigorous-intensity PA (such as walking, running, aerobics, or other cardiovascular exercise) both before and after their diagnosis were considered habitually active, whereas those who did not exercise regularly were considered habitually inactive.

Overall, 52% of patients reported habitual activity, and 19% reported habitual inactivity. Twenty-three percent of patients said their activity level decreased after diagnosis, and 6% said their activity level increased.

Patients were followed through January 31, 2018. The median time to follow-up was 53 months, and 33.7% of patients (n=1956) died during the follow-up period.


The researchers found that patients who were active before and after diagnosis were 40% more likely to survive than those who were habitually inactive (P<0.001). Habitually inactive patients had a 66% increased risk of mortality compared to active patients.

The habitually active patients had a 37-month mean survival advantage over the inactive patients.

In addition, patients whose activity level increased after diagnosis had a 25% lower risk of death than patients who remained inactive after diagnosis.

The researchers observed a significant (P<0.05) association between habitual PA and decreased mortality in patients with breast, colon, prostate, bladder, endometrial, ovarian, esophageal, and skin cancers.

However, the association between PA and mortality was not significant for patients with hematologic malignancies (P=0.59) or kidney, liver, lung, pancreas, stomach, or “other” cancers.

The researchers said the associations between habitual PA and decreased mortality remained consistent regardless of a patient’s sex, tumor stage, smoking status, or body mass index.

“[W]hen it comes to exercise, something is better than nothing, but regular, weekly exercise seems to really make a difference,” Dr Cannioto said.

“In fact, patients who were physically active 3 or 4 days a week experienced an even greater benefit than those who exercised daily, and patients who had only 1 or 2 days of regular activity per week did nearly as well. This is particularly encouraging, as cancer patients and survivors can be overwhelmed by current physical activity recommendations.”

*Information in the abstract differs from the presentation.

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