Deanna’s Discoveries: Beating fatigue

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Patients have a vicious enemy in the battle against breast cancer – fatigue. It’s the treatment side effect they complain about most often. But researchers at Wilmot Cancer Institute may have found the panacea.

In this week’s edition of Deanna’s Discoveries, Deanna Dewberry tells us about a treatment for fatigue that’s more effective than any drug on the market.

Breast cancer survivors attending a yoga class at the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester had no trouble with the Warrior II yoga position. They stood strong, legs apart, arms outstretched focusing on the instructor’s soothing voice.

Each woman in the room is a warrior in her own right, having fought the beast of breast cancer. And all say yoga is an essential weapon in their cancer-fighting arsenal.

There among them was Kim Toombs, a four-year survivor. But when a friend first suggested she try yoga, she remembers she was incredibly skeptical.

Kim thought, "You’re freakin’ crazy! I’m not doing yoga!"

After all, she was undergoing chemotherapy and felt crummy.

"I was just tired all the time," Kim said.

I get it. For me, chemo-tired is a different kind of tired. It sends me to bed with our family dog who sleeps 18 hours a day. It’s a body- aching, joints screaming, ‘I’m not moving from this spot until next week’ kind of tired.

But Wilmot Cancer Institute clinical trial investigators believe they may have the magic bullet.

They showed me how they test patients’ physical fitness on a treadmill. But this is no ordinary treadmill.

A contraption is strapped to the patient’s head securing a tube to his mouth. A blood pressure cuff is on his arm, and EKG leads are stuck to his skin all while he is walking on the treadmill. The gadgets measure everything from the patient’s breathing to his blood pressure.

Cancer patients are then prescribed an exercise regimen then evaluated again after weeks or months. The results have been extraordinarily promising.

"Exercise and psychotherapeutic interventions are the two best treatments for cancer-related fatigue. They work better than any drug on the market,” said Dr. Mustian. “It’s counterintuitive, but the evidence is undeniable."

Dr. Mustian’s analysis, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, involved more than 11,000 patients, half of whom were breast cancer survivors. The study concluded exercise was so effective "clinicians should prescribe exercise" as a treatment for fatigue.

"And if you’re informed in the field of exercise oncology, you can actually then begin to create a detailed personalized prescription to target whatever it is that patient is experiencing, said Dr. Mustian.

For example, doctors may prescribe walking or yoga which clinical trials show improves everything from fatigue to insomnia.

"It definitely reduced my fatigue," said Kim.

Now she’s a believer. It’s her prescription for a better quality of life.

Clinical trials have shown that exercise not only is effective in treating fatigue, it’s also great in increasing mental clarity and decreasing chemo-related nerve pain.

If you’re being treated for cancer, it’s important to talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.