Physical Activity – The Missing Link in Cancer Care

Written by Alexandra Black MPH, RD, LDN, Health Promotion Manager, IHRSA

Every October, men and women around the United States don their best pink trappings to raise awareness for breast cancer and the importance of early detection. Breast cancer affects an estimated 1 in 8 women (12%) nationwide. In 2015 nearly 300,000 cases of invasive and non-invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed, killing 40,290 women. Of course, breast cancer isn’t solely a women’s disease – it is anticipated that in 2015 men will be diagnosed with 2,350 cases of invasive breast cancer. While genetic predisposition is a factor, roughly 85 percent of breast cancer cases diagnosed in women are among those with no history of the disease. 

The good news is that physical activity may help prevent breast cancer and limit recurrence. Research has shown associations between participating in regular physical activity and maintaining a normal body weight to lower risk of breast cancer. Physical activity has also been linked to lower risk of cancer recurrence and higher quality of life during and following treatment. 


According to the American Cancer Society, 6.2 percent of the population has been diagnosed with cancer, and roughly 1 in 25 Americans are cancer survivors. Physical activity is important during or following cancer treatment, yet the barriers to doing so can be difficult to overcome. Some health clubs are finding solutions that are making a big impact on cancer survivors and their families in their communities. The Claremont Club in Claremont, California teamed up with the Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center’s Robert and Beverly Lewis Family Cancer Care Center in 2005 to run the Living Well After Cancer program. The program aims to improve fitness levels, quality of life, and self-esteem among cancer survivors. Participants meet at the club twice a week for thirteen weeks and participate in exercise classes. In addition, certified trainers and dietitians oversee the participants and are always available to provide personalized training techniques and guidance on healthy eating habits.

On the east coast, 75 cancer survivors at the World Bank Gym in Washington, D.C. progressed through the Back to Life program between February 2013 and April 2014. The six-week, multi-dimensional wellness program was developed by a cancer survivor with the goal of empowering other cancer survivors to improve their health-related quality of life through exercise, nutrition, and adoption of healthy lifestyle choices. The first two weeks of the program consist of individual, half-hour assessments with the trainers, and the remaining four weeks include one-hour group sessions twice weekly. Over the fourteen months measured, 100 percent of participants learned something new and would recommend the program. According to their testimonials, participants felt the holistic approach to exercise was motivating and improved various aspects of quality of life. They also felt the program mitigated their concerns about the safety and tolerability of exercise and found nutrition education and social support extremely valuable.  

The IHRSA Foundation is planning to expand the Back to Life Program to health clubs across the United States using a “train the trainer model.”

When it comes to cancer prevention and treatment, big solutions are still needed. Too many are diagnosed with and dying from cancer every year. But organizations and businesses around the country are beginning to offer promising and uplifting solutions. If we can bring down the barriers, physical activity can be a life changing addition the care of cancer patients and survivors.

Spread the word!

Sample tweet: Thrive after #cancer by staying active!  @IHRSA_GetActive shares details on the Be Active Your Way blog!