Exercise Could Be Key to Continued Health For Breast Cancer Survivors

When Carla Sanchez started working out as part of a study on exercise’s impact on women who survived breast cancer, she was surprised at how vigorous it was.

“I’m 65, so I’m not exactly a young kid,” Sanchez said. “When I was younger, women didn’t necessarily lift weights.” Though she was an avid bowler before entering breast cancer treatment, Sanchez said the weights and stationary bike in the gym were all new to her.
Sanchez, a retired nurse, had taken care of breast cancer patients in the 1970s. At that time, she was taught that breast cancer patients shouldn’t be lifting more than five pounds — for the rest of their lives. “And all of a sudden, here I am, lifting 20, 30 or 40 pounds in a gym,” she said. “I just wanted to get better.” Sanchez was part of a pioneering study from Christina Dieli-Conwright, PhD, assistant professor of research at the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy and member of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer CenterDieli-Conwright explains most women treated with chemotherapy for breast cancer often gain weight.
“Breast cancer has a relatively high survival rate, and many people don’t realize that the No. 1 cause of death for survivors is actually heart disease,” she said. Dieli-Conwright adds that the majority of women who go through four months of chemotherapy develop metabolic syndrome — a cluster of health conditions that includes high blood pressure, excessive body fat and high cholesterol. To look at how exercise might impact the health of breast
cancer survivors, the junior researcher developed a study with funding from the National Cancer Institute, tapping into the diverse population around USC and recruiting women who were just finishing treatment for breast cancer.
The women worked out, supervised, for 16 weeks with a program based on guidelines created by the American Cancer Society and the American College of Sports Medicine. This program included at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity spread throughout the week and two days of resistance
training with weights.
As a result of the exercise intervention, health conditions related to metabolic syndrome improved and women lost weight from fat and gained muscle — compared to a control group of sedentary women.
Dieli-Conwright’s study is the largest to date in cancer survivors to show such a positive impact of exercise on metabolic syndrome and in such a diverse sample of breast cancer survivors.
By Christina Dieli-Conwright, PhD