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Updated: 03/27/13

Exercise Study for Metastatic Breast Cancer Patients May Offer Benefits

Division of Cancer Prevention

There is growing recognition and acceptance of the beneficial role of exercise following a breast cancer diagnosis. Studies have suggested that exercise improves symptom control and may be associated with reductions in cancer-related and overall death rates in women with breast cancer. NCI is currently supporting a pilot research study* in women with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) as a first step in determining the feasibility of launching large-scale clinical trials investigating the effects of exercise on breast cancer outcomes.

Lee Jones, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Scientific Director of the Duke University Center for Cancer Survivorship, who is the principal investigator of the study, commented, “There are a lot of research studies that look at the role of exercise in women with early stage breast cancer, but few studies have looked at the role of exercise in patients with metastatic disease.”

Jones and his team are conducting a randomized phase II clinical trial in women with MBC. Half of the patients will participate in a treadmill walking program, while the remainder of patients will be in a control group, doing only low-intensity stretching exercises.

The study focuses on the safety and feasibility of exercise training as opposed to the potential role of exercise to improve disease outcomes in women with metastatic disease. Before addressing these types of questions, it is first of crucial importance to determine if exercising by these individuals is safe or possible “because MBC is a totally different clinical scenario than those with early-stage disease,” Dr. Jones noted. Women with MBC face many additional challenges from advanced disease and its treatments, including drug toxicities, infections, and hospitalizations, he added. “We have to be on our toes because their situations can change week-to-week.”

Dr. Jones reported they have enrolled about 30 women into the study so far and have identified two distinct groups of MBC patients. “There is a group who essentially do very well with exercise,” he said. “And then there is another group who really want to exercise but they’re just not able to because of toxicity, disease progression, and other factors. I believe this study is going to be extremely informative in terms of working out the characteristics of individuals with advanced disease who may be able to tolerate and benefit from an exercise program.”

“That is a simple question but it’s an important first step towards moving ahead with larger clinical trials to really get to some of the biology of what’s going on,” Dr. Jones continued. “It’s not just what can we do to help these patients feel better as they go through all these treatments, but can we also impact clinical and disease outcomes in these patients?”

If the pilot study shows promising results for exercise in MBC patients in terms of program adherence, adverse events, and safety profile, “that would bode well for future study in a more select population,” Dr. Jones noted. “I think exercise is definitely going to be complementary to standard care for these patients in the future.”

* Grant number: 5R21CA143254-02