Can exercise stop cancer? Canadian researchers want to find out

Can exercise prevent cancer from recurring and boost patient survival rate? A group of Canadian researchers have launched an international study to find out.

Clinical trial enrols colon cancer survivors to study how exercise impacts cancer recurrence

Lyle Southam, 62, enrolled in the CHALLENGE study in 2013 after completing treatment for colon cancer. The Candian-led study aims to enrol 1,000 colon cancer survivors to determine if exercise can prevent cancer recurrence and boost survival rate. (Canadian Cancer Society)

Can exercise prevent cancer from recurring and boost patient survival rate? A group of Canadian researchers have launched an international study to find out.

The researchers aim to enrol about 1,000 colon cancer survivors from Canada, Australia and Israel who have completed surgery and chemotherapy. In Canada, researchers are drawing participants from 20 cancer centres across the country, including Hamilton's Juravinski Cancer Centre.

The participants are divided at random into two groups. Those in the experimental group are connected with a physical activity consultant – a kinesiologist, a personal trainer, or a physiotherapist – to develop a structured exercise program.

A typical exercise routine for the participants involves walking four times a week for 40 minutes at a “moderately brisk pace,” said Chris Booth, an oncologist at Kingston General hospital and lead researcher of the study. A variety of other activities — such as running on the treadmill and swimming — can also be added to the program.

Participants in the other group are given health education materials and can exercise if they wish, but they are not paired with a physical activity consultant.

Both groups are monitored with CT scans, blood work and colonoscopy over three years for cancer recurrence and to find out whether exercise boosts survival rates.

“This is the first and largest clinical trial to ask what we think is a bold and exciting question as to whether the rates of cancer recurrence and cancer survival can be improved with a structured exercise program,” Booth told CBC News in Hamilton.

Study hopes to inspire policy change

The overall benefits of exercise is well known, Booth added, and researches have also shown that people who exercise have a lower risk of developing cancer in the first place. But physical activity's impact on cancer recurrence is still a relatively new concept which has just “come into the scientific realm in the last few years,” Booth explained.

If the study yields positive results, Booth said he hopes it can not only motivate patients to exercise, but also inspire health-care professionals to incorporate exercise into the standard cancer care program. 

Chris Booth, an oncologist at Kingston General Hospital and associate professor at Queen’s University, is the lead researcher of the CHALLENGE study. (Canadian Cancer Society)

"People have asked why even do a clinical trial. Exercise seems to make so much sense for so many reasons. Why not just tell patients to exercise?" Booth said. 

"Some of the reasons why we think the trials are important is that as much as we tell ourselves to exercise, it can be difficult to find motivation to do that, both at the level of the patient, but also at the level of the health-care system to support people to make a lifestyle change."

Dubbed as the CHALLENGE study, the clinical trial is led by the NCIC Clinical Trials Group, the research arm of the Canadian Cancer Society, which funded the study.

Since the study was launched in 2009, about 300 participants have signed up. During Colon Cancer Awareness Month in March, the Canadian Cancer Society is encouraging colon cancer survivors to enrol in the study. 

Colon cancer is the third most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in Canada, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. About 40 per cent of patients with stage 3 colon cancer relapse and die from the disease.

“It's a fairly at risk population, which is another reason why we decided it would be a good patient population to do the study in an effort to improve their survival rate and quality of life,” Booth said.