Garvan Exercise Study


The following article features in Issue One of the ST BREAST magazine.

Can you imagine getting straight out of the chemotherapy chair and into an exercise room for 45 minutes of strength training? That’s exactly what a group of patients at Sydney’s The Kinghorn Cancer Centre and Garvan Research Institute are doing, as part of a PhD project being undertaken by medical oncologist Dr Sara Wahlroos.

She’s examining the effects of exercise, when combined with chemotherapy, on breast cancer biology.

Seventeen women are already enrolled in the study and all are undergoing neo-adjuvant chemotherapy (treatment before surgery). They have a supervised exercise session straight after their first four sessions of chemotherapy. In addition, the participants are given a set of dumbells and are prescribed an individualised home-based training program that they undertake three times a week for the first six months of treatment. They are also being encouraged to do at least 8000 steps a day.

“Ninety percent of these women have never done weights before, so you see a difference in their strength very quickly,” Dr Wahlroos says.

“While we have no firm data yet as the study is still ongoing, the women involved are really enjoying the process.

“What we have seen is that they are all at least maintaining their muscle mass, upper and lower body strength, and some have even gotten stronger, despite being in the middle of chemotherapy.”

Dr Wahlroos says there is a strong body of evidence demonstrating that women undergoing chemotherapy lose condition and muscle mass, as well as aerobic fitness.

“Many women temporarily or permanently go into menopause as a result of therapy. And when you reduce oestrogen, it results in a loss in muscle mass. Women end up with more fat than muscle, and therefore burn fewer calories.

They often say, ‘I cannot shift these kilos and it was never this hard’.

Our aim is to help them preserve as much muscle as possible by doing strength training.

If they can maintain muscle mass, they are going to have a much easier time recovering their aerobic fitness as well, because they have the strength.”

Dr Wahlroos’ motivation to keep patients moving is simple. She says as survival rates for breast cancer improve, it’s important to look ahead and ensure quality of life is  maintained, so that patients don’t end up with other ailments like cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.

“We used to tell women they should be in bed and rest after treatment. But that’s gone out the window. That’s the worst thing you can do. We used to say that about back problems. As soon as you decondition, it is so hard to come back from that. I am not saying all of a sudden do 100 burpees. I am saying start small and we will work from there.”

The research is expected to be finalised at the end of 2020.

Dr Sara Wahlroos