A whopping 38% of people being treated with multiple drugs for cancer develop nerve pain—resulting in tingling, shooting pains, movement problems and/or numbness. It’s called chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN), and it’s so painful that some people drop out of lifesaving chemo, and the pain can last for years. There are no FDA-approved drugs to prevent it—or treat it.
But there is something incredibly simple that you can do yourself that makes a real difference. It’s a gentle exercise program that’s easy to do at home.
A WAY TO EXERCISE WHILE YOU ARE IN CHEMO
The program is called Exercise for Cancer Patients (EXCAP), and it’s the brainchild of Karen M. Mustian, PhD, MPH, at the University of Rochester Medical Center. She has conducted trials on the effect of exercise on cancer patients since 2007.
EXCAP is deceptively simple, especially for something that can transform cancer patients’ lives. It’s daily walking plus a set of exercises using stretchy elastic resistance bands to build muscle strength. That’s all—but it’s tailored to each individual’s fitness needs…it’s based at home…and it includes coaching by a trained instructor who can help each patient progress (and overcome any obstacles encountered). The goal is to slowly build endurance and strength with daily exercise—by increasing the number of steps walked and with progressively challenging resistance band exercises. It lasts six weeks, although it’s easy to continue on your own after the official program ends.
FIGHTING NEUROPATHY WITH YOUR OWN TWO FEET (AND ARMS)
In this study, researchers identified 314 patients in the ongoing clinical trials on EXCAP who were getting chemo drugs known to contribute to nerve pain, including platinum, vinca alkaloid and taxane. (If you are being treated with one of these drugs, the chance that you’ll get CIPN is 60%.) These drugs often are used to treat breast cancer, and indeed three-quarters of the patients were being treated for breast cancer. Everyone got chemo, but about half of the patients were also enrolled in EXCAP.
Results: Exercisers had significantly less chemo-induced nerve pain—especially older ones.
How does exercise help? The exact mechanisms aren’t known, but other EXCAP studies have shown that the program reduces chronic inflammation. It has other benefits, too, such as reducing cognitive impairment—aka, “chemo brain”—in people being treated with drugs for cancer. Plus, regular exercise reduces the risk for cancer recurrence and it even may make cancer treatments more effective.
How much exercise is enough to minimize cancer treatment side effects such as nerve pain? There aren’t any official guidelines yet, so your best bet is to discuss an exercise plan with your doctor, who may be able to recommend a physical therapist or exercise trainer you can work with. Use common sense—start slowly and build up very gradually. Don’t overdo it. Chemo is taxing and exhausting, but the good news is that this very mild exercise program, tailored to your energy level, may help you get through the process with less pain now—and in the future—and will also improve your circulation so that toxic compounds that result from chemotherapy move out of your body faster. (And if you haven’t started cancer treatment yet, make sure that exercise is part of your cancer prehab program.)