Exercise – and shameful record of NHS ignoring benefits for cancer patients

Jogging with dog at Carcavelos Beach

Exercise is good for you both Wikipedia

So why won’t the NHS help

by providing this?


David Cameron talks on about obesity – research proves that exercise can help – yet all that happens is expensive advertising campaigns telling us obesity is bad.

When will politicians get real?

Researchers around the world are producing more and more studies on the benefits of exercise, yet NHS does nothing to help by providing suitable classes.  Not everyone can afford a private health club membership.  Not everyone wants to go running in the street, and the local park might not be the safest place.  Yet when cancer patients are now told to go and exercise, hospital gyms are closed to them.  It doesn’t make sense!

Starting off

Boredom was hitting in spades, and sitting around the Cromwell Hospital I had a massive dose – so picked up a leaflet headed Cancer Recovery Exercise Programme.  It would give me something to do, my insurance company was in a benign mood – so I went for it.

And its founder, Matt Hickey, was one of those evangelists whose words made sense.  And his exercise programme helped me get better so much quicker that my doctors were astonished.

Macmillan agrees

Now the charity say that research proves that inactivity risks long term health of 1.6 million cancer survivors, and are calling for exercise to be prescribed.

  • Doctors fail to inform cancer patients about benefits of exercise
  • 1.6 million cancer survivors1 could be at greater risk of serious long term health problems
  • some are at greater risk of recurrence of cancer because they are not physically active enough

Their recent report,  Move More, reveals startling new evidence showing just how important physical activity is to the recovery and long term health of cancer patients. Four key findings in the report are:

  1. breast cancer patients’ risk of recurrence and of dying from the disease can be reduced by up to 40% by doing recommended levels of physical activity
  2. bowel cancer patients’ risk of recurrence and of dying from the disease can be reduced by around 50% by doing significant amounts of physical activity
  3. prostate cancer patients’ risk of dying from the disease can be reduced by up to 30% by doing recommended levels of physical activity
  4. After treatment all cancer patients can reduce their risk of getting side effects of cancer and its treatment by doing recommended levels of physical activity. These include fatigue, depression, osteoporosis and heart disease.

Yet despite strong emerging evidence that being physically active could dramatically improve cancer patients’ recovery and long term health, a survey by Macmillan Cancer Support found that

  • many health professionals are not aware of this
  • the majority are not talking to their patients about it.

Over half (56%) of GPs, practice nurses, oncologists and cancer nurses do not speak to their patients about the possible benefits of physical activity, or, at best, they speak to just a few of them.

Ciaran Devane, Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support said:

“The evidence in our report, Move More, shows just how important physical activity is to the recovery process of cancer. Yet very little attention to its benefits is given by health professionals or by those commissioning health services.  It is essential that physical activity services are available and ‘prescribed’ to all cancer patients.

“Cancer patients would be shocked if they knew just how much of a benefit physical activity could have on their recovery and long term health, in some cases reducing their chances of having to go through the gruelling ordeal of treatment all over again.

What type of exercise is best?

It doesn’t need to be anything too strenuous – what about

  • gardening
  • going for a brisk walk
  • swimming
  • cycling

What happens if you need gentler or more specialised exercise?

Sitting in just about every hospital that treats cancer patients is a large room, full of expensive equipment, but under-utilised:  the Physiotherapy Department’s Gym.

The equipment can help with all kinds of exercise;  this doesn’t have to be ‘gung-ho let’s go for the burn’ type – but using bouncers for gentle up-and-down leg movements can be helpful.  So can using treadmills for gentle strolls – and realising that what is probably more beneficial than setting machines to go faster, is to make them incline more.

Just rolling Swedish balls around, sitting and balancing on them, pushing them up the wall – can loosed tired muscles and get blood activated.

Exercise doesn’t have to be fast and furious – but it needs to be tailored to every patient’s specific needs.  And it needs physios that understand the requirements for individual patients’ needs.

Taking exercise on

Traditionally cancer patients were told to “rest up” after their cancer treatment and to “take it easy”, yet Move More shows that this approach is outdated and could actually put cancer patients at risk.

Jane Maher, Chief Medical Officer of Macmillan Cancer Support and leading clinical oncologist said:

“The advice that I would have previously given to one of my patients would have been to ‘take it easy’. This has now changed significantly because of the recognition that if physical exercise were a drug, it would be hitting the headlines.

“There really needs to be a cultural change, so that health professionals see physical activity as an integral part of cancer after care, not just an optional add-on.”

Jane, 57, from Christchurch, took part in a ‘prescribed’ exercise course at her local hospital, following treatment. She says:

“Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer I didn’t really do much exercise. I felt pretty down and exhausted after my treatment – it really knocked it out of me.

“I was referred to the BACSUP programme9, where I was given 12 weeks free use of the gym and regular meetings with a specially trained fitness instructor. They suggested I go along to a dragon boat racing group for women who’ve had breast cancer. I loved it so much, I’m still taking part.

“I feel like a completely different person. I’m much more confident, am much less tired and feel so much better. Who could have imagined me being so full of life after everything I’ve been through?”

So why can’t we ALL benefit?

Jane was lucky enough to be in a position to get the BACSUP programme, but ordinary patients, if they suggest to their cancer centre that they would like something similar, are met with blank stares, or, even more unforgiveable, “we don’t do that – you’ll have to go privately”.

So all you hospitals with gyms, hang your heads in shame.  You are being dogs-in-the-manger.  You could so easily set up classes for ALL cancer patients – yet you let NHS equipment lie idle and under-utilised until maintenance comes in and hangs a sign ‘out of order’. 

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2 thoughts on “Exercise – and shameful record of NHS ignoring benefits for cancer patients

  1. John kenney September 23, 2011 at 3:57 pm Reply

    I agree wholeheartedly with your article. Unfortunately the cancer treatment can often knock the haemaglobin figures which tends to mitigate against brisk walks. I run a support group for Myeloma patients and many suffer from damaged vertebrae so are told to avoid gardening to lessen osteoporitic damage again. However the principle is right and I encourage you in your work. In fact the next meeting of the support group has a Macmillan physio as the main speaker so no doubt she will be pushing the subject.

    • Verite Reily Collins September 23, 2011 at 6:21 pm Reply

      Am sure we would all be interested in what the Macmillan physio has to say.

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