Could exercise help beat ovarian cancer?

February is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, so let’s talk about the impact of exercise for preventing and managing ovarian cancer.

What is Ovarian Cancer?

Ovarian Cancer is the eighth most common type of cancer for women in Australia, and has the highest mortality rate of all gynaecological cancers. There are no defining symptoms, however you could experience abdominal bloating, menstrual irregularities, fatigue, indigestion, and pain during intercourse. Because of this lack of clear symptoms, ovarian cancer is often detected late. As a result, treatment is usually in the form of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy – all of which can have a big impact on physical and mental health.

There are some factors that can increase your risk for Ovarian Cancer such as ageing (50+), infertility, early menstruation, late menopause, family history of ovarian, breast, or bowel cancer, and using oestrogen only hormone replacement therapy.

Does exercise reduce my risk of ovarian cancer?

While exercise cannot completely remove your risk for ovarian cancer, it may be able to reduce your risk. Research shows that those who maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI) and do some form of leisure physical activity, may avoid an excess risk of developing cancer. Those who are not active also have an increased risk of death.

Another study that looked at mortality risk for those with ovarian cancer, found that regardless of a persons weight, any amount of physical activity is better for surviving ovarian cancer. Those that are inactive have 22-34% higher risk for mortality compared to those that report at least some physical activity. What does this mean?

Being active, in any way, will help to minimise your risk of developing and dying from ovarian cancer.

women exercising

Can exercise help during treatment?

Throughout treatment for ovarian cancer, women often report a variety of side effects such as fatigue, peripheral neuropathy (tingling, burning or numbness), hair and skin issues, and psychological distress.

Exercise might be the last thing on your mind during treatment. But perhaps it shouldn’t be?

While it may seem contradictory, aerobic exercise such as walking or cycling can help improve feelings of fatigue. A study conducted in 2011 analysed a walking program for women undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. Women walked four days per week at a moderate intensity, for 30 minutes each session. Significant improvements were seen in physical functioning. They also experienced decreased symptoms, and reported an improved quality of life. This supports the notion that regular aerobic exercise while undergoing treatment can have numerous positive effects, whilst simultaneously reducing your risk for other chronic diseases.

The Clinical Oncology Society of Australia recommends a tailored exercise program for those undergoing treatment. They suggest that patients work towards the exercise guidelines for both aerobic and strength based exercise. Exercise is a vital part of all cancer treatments, but requires the supervision of a suitably qualified professional, such as an Exercise Physiologist.

Exercise during Recovery

While in recovery from cancer, there can be persistence of treatment related symptoms for even months afterwards. Additionally, returning to ‘normal life’ and working to improve long term health can be a challenge for women.

The good news? Those who report meeting the exercise recommendations experience significantly less fatigue, peripheral neuropathy, depression, and anxiety. They also report increases in sleep quality and happiness! Women in recovery from ovarian cancer can work towards achieving 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. In addition, they should aim for two strength based sessions per week, which is the recommendation for all adults.

Where to get help?

If you or someone you know is currently undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer, or are now in recovery, get help from an Exercise Physiologist. They can tailor an exercise plan suitable to your individual needs and stage of treatment. Exercise Physiologists are university-qualified allied health professionals and are expertly trained to manage those with chronic conditions. They work in a variety of settings including hospitals, community health, private practice and gyms. They are also the most qualified professionals for clinical exercise prescription.

To find an Accredited Exercise Physiologist near you, click here!

Zosha - exercise physiologist

Zosha is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist working in Community Health at East Grampians Health Service in regional Victoria.