How does exercise help someone going through cancer treatment?

Jul 28 2020

Behavioural Scientist Professor Erica James has a family that's been significantly impacted by cancer. This is what drives her work. "When someone was diagnosed with cancer we used to rally around, bake cakes, ring a bell at the end of chemo and then assume that people would recover if if they rested. Nobody told people with cancer that they could take control during this period. We know people are stressed when they undergo treatment, but we often don't say what will make a difference to sleep, anxiety, wellbeing or their chances of successfully completing their cancer treatment."

Erica, a researcher in the School of Medicine and Public Health at UON, leads a program of research in behavioural change in cancer prevention and control. "Some of the work I do sits with health professionals, some focuses on the groups that supply services to ensure they work to deliver on the best evidence, and sometimes it's about how can we change the system."

Erica stresses that every person with cancer will respond differently - because we're all individuals. "Being diagnosed with cancer doesn't change any of the other characteristics of who we are or where we live."

With a background in exercise science, she wants to see the healthy choice become the easy choice. "I'm interested in multiple health behaviour change, so I need to work with people with different expertise to provide the right support for the right person. This includes dieticians, exercise physiologists, oncologists, addiction and sleep specialists, and the groups in the community who provide support."

One of the main projects that Erica is working on is working with people with cancer to deliver an optimum exercise regime with the Kaden Centre, a unique (we believe world-first) centre that delivers personalised exercise programs for people with at all stages of cancer. It's interesting, because while the best evidence shows that people with cancer should be supported to exercise, there are few programs that are specifically designed to offer the specialised support that people with cancer need. But there's one right here in the Hunter. It's also a charity, so they provide the care at a very low cost.

Erica is working with other researchers, including oncologists and exercise scientists, to provide the evidence needed to form policy around prescribing exercise for people with cancer. Whether it's 'pre-hab' to help get people into optimal condition before undergoing treatment, or rehab to help them recover, Erica and her team are passionate about giving people the tools they need to make a difference to their physical and mental health and give people the best possible chance to complete their cancer treatment optimally.

Erica has a proven history in this field. She developed and evaluated the ENRICHing survivorship program run by Cancer Council NSW which is an eight week course of diet and exercise for cancer survivors and their carers. This program was the first of its kind to safely teach people with cancer and their carers how to do resistance training at home.

"One of the most reported psychosocial issues after a cancer diagnosis is a lack of control. But one of the key things we can control are our lifestyle factors. It doesn't have to be extreme - we see big improvements in mental health with very small interventions. Even just incorporating more vegies and fibre into your diet, and starting a daily walking program makes a massive difference. 

Erica's long-term goal? To see whether we need to change one behaviour at a time, or simultaneously. What brings the best results and how to we implement these health behaviours into practice?

Erica spoke with ABC Newcastle's Kia Handley about her work. Listen here