Exercise as Therapy for Chemotherapy-Related Nerve Damage

Image Courtesy of Pixabay.

Thanks to revolutionary treatments that have emerged in recent decades, those diagnosed with cancer have strong reasons to be more hopeful than ever before. Although advanced therapeutics have allowed for an encouragingly large population of cancer survivors, many overlook what happens after treatment is completed. Research investigating cancer therapies is certainly critical, but further work is needed to address post-treatment quality of life and side effects as well. 

“During their treatment, [ovarian cancer survivors] have this whole medical team providing information and the help they need, but after that, some patients described standing at a cliff, not knowing where to go,” said Anlan Cao, a PhD candidate at the Yale School of Public Health. Compared to the vast support system present during the course of treatment, cancer survivors are often left feeling unsure of how to proceed afterward. 

These worries are especially heightened by adverse effects that persist even after treatment ends, including chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). CIPN is one of the most common side effects of ovarian cancer treatment, producing unpleasant symptoms like numbness, pain, and altered perceptions of touch as a result of damage to neurons. Unfortunately, besides the medication duloxetine (which can only be used in a small subset of CIPN cases), there are no approved therapies available to effectively treat CIPN.

As a result, researchers including Cao and members of Melinda Irwin’s and Leah Ferrucci’s research group (which studies cancer survivorship in the School of Public Health) have been investigating lifestyle factors as a potential treatment for CIPN. By analyzing data from the Women’s Activity and Lifestyle Study in Connecticut, a randomized controlled trial that had already been shown to improve general health-related quality of life, they were able to discover that a six-month aerobic exercise intervention significantly improved CIPN among patients who had undergone treatment for ovarian cancer.

Women in the intervention arm, which entailed telephone counseling that encouraged moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (primarily brisk walking), reported having fewer CIPN-related sensory, motor, and auditory problems compared to an attention control group which had telephone calls discussing general health topics. 

These findings suggest aerobic exercise could be a worthwhile therapeutic for ovarian cancer survivors experiencing a common treatment side effect. This is highly encouraging for cancer survivors, as it gives them more autonomy in their recovery process. “They don’t have to rely solely on doctors and drugs; they can actually exercise and improve these really nasty symptoms,” said Cao. Future research has the potential to shed light on other lifestyle factors that may similarly improve treatment side effects and quality of life among cancer survivors, and Irwin’s and Ferrucci’s research group has already begun studying how comprehensive lifestyle interventions could improve side effects and quality of life during cancer treatment. Pain and numbness caused by nerve damage are major reasons that patients are unable to fully adhere to chemotherapy regimens, therefore contributing to reduced survival rates. Taken together, these studies may offer hope to minimize distress and symptoms during and after chemotherapy treatment, and ultimately both save and improve lives.