Exercise likely to prevent, treat breast cancer

By Christine Graf
October 25, 2007

A new study on exercise after breast cancer treatment shows promising results. University of Pennsylvania is completing a study on how exercise affects post-surgical breast cancer patients.

Communications professor Cathy Yungmann, a survivor of breast cancer, was a year-long participant in the study.

Diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 46, Yungmann knew she would be in for a life-changing experience. As a child she remembered breast cancer as a death sentence which no one talked about. Breast cancer research had come a long way from her childhood to the time of her diagnosis and even today is continuing to improve.

The year-long study at University of Pennsylvania invited 288 breast cancer survivors of all ages to participate, half with lymphedema, which is swelling in the arm after surgery, and half without it. The focus was to find out if weight-training was safe for patients with lymphedema and would not bring on lymphedema for patients not already affected.

Each woman trained twice a week for a whole year. Their intensity was slow, progressive and supervised carefully.

“Times have really changed since I first was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Yungmann said. “After my surgery, my doctor advised me to avoid using the arm on the side I had surgery and even my purse would be too strenuous to carry on that arm.”

Today doctors and researchers are concluding from studies like that at the University of Pennsylvania that exercise when done moderately seems to be more beneficial than anything else. The study has not been completely proven. Therefore women with breast cancer or lymphedema should not exercise without the full approval of a doctor, Yungmann said.

After participating in the study Yungmann feels physically stronger. The study represents women in control of their cancer and not the other way around. Chemotherapy can make patients weak but what keeps them strong involves staying active.

Yungmann reflects back on her times of chemotherapy and remembers complete exhaustion. “I was very tired and had little energy, but continued to keep my self occupied through gardening. It was inspirational and represented life and hope.”

Breast cancer affects 1 in 9 women in the United States and stands as the leading cause of mortality in North American woman. Studies show that being active for an hour a day can reduce the risk of breast cancer by 20 percent.

Exercise science professor, Dr. Tony Verde, explains how exercise can not only help women survive breast cancer but also prevent it.

“When a woman exercises the amount of estrogen significantly lowers. Estrogen triggers the spread of breast cancer; therefore low estrogen can prevent cancer from spreading. Exercise also increases the activity and sensitivity of natural killer cells which are cells in the immune system responsible for early detection of cancer,” Verde said.

Bridget Kavanagh, a junior studio art major, represents proof that it is never too early to start learning about breast cancer. Kavanagh was a junior in high school and only 17 years old when she first felt something strange on her breast.

“I ignored it, I was 17, and there was no way that it (lump in breast) could be anything serious, I was just too young,” Kavanagh said. Over time the lump she felt grew into something she could visually see and decided to mention it to her mother.

Kavanagh, accompanied by her mother, went to the doctors for an ultrasound. Neither of them were too worried since Kavanagh was only 17. They figured it was no more then a cyst.

“I’ll never forget the feeling I felt when my mom sat me down with my whole family there and told me the doctor called with my results and it was a tumor,” Kavanagh said. “My whole body shook and I could do nothing but hysterically cry.”

Upon visiting a specialist the doctor was pretty sure it was not cancerous but they would not be completely sure until it was removed and a biopsy was performed. “The doctor was so surprised that the tumor was so big; I had ignored it for so long that I was lucky we caught it before it did any real damage,” Kavanagh said.

“There was a time in my life I thought I had cancer and it is the scariest feeling in the world. There is no excuse for avoiding getting checked through doctors and self-examinations. Be conscious of your health, exercise and eat right, it will be worth it in the long run,” Kavanagh said.

Kavanagh was lucky that her tumor was not cancerous but it could very well have been. She stresses the importance of sharing her story because “we really do think we are invincible; and we are most definitely not,” Kavanagh said.

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Christine Graf

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