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Physical activity: powerful weapon against cancer

A healthy mind in a healthy body, as the saying goes. But what about situations where the body has suffered a major shock? How do we get back on our feet, especially when emotional strength is waning?

Research led by Catherine Sabiston, from McGill’s Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, is helping breast cancer survivors make physical exercise part of their lives.

“Women diagnosed with breast cancer are generally between 55 and 65 years of age. In many cases, physical exercise has never really been part of their lives. The first stage involves examining what means are available so they can become more active,” explains Dr. Sabiston.

At her Health Behaviour and Emotion Lab, Catherine Sabiston tracks, for one year, some 200 women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and who have completed chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Not having been physically active before diagnosis is also part of the selection criteria. Professor Sabiston’s team assesses the impact of exercise, not only on their physical health, but their psychological health as well. Every three months, they assess body image, stress level, depression and even the positive personal growth that can occur after trauma.

The results so far are unequivocal: Exercise has an observable effect on every indicator.

“The participants are amazed to see how much physical activity they can incorporate into a day. Even small changes have an impact. Getting off the bus one or two stops earlier, parking the car a bit farther from where you’re going – these small steps can make a big difference.”

In 2009, Catherine Sabiston developed another research project, in collaboration with the Breast Clinic at the Cedars Cancer Institute and Curves Fitness Centres. A group of women with similar profiles – 200 breast cancer survivors who were sedentary before their diagnosis – follow a 30-minute training program developed by Curves. In this case, the focus is helping participants develop self-esteem and confidence in their ability to integrate an exercise program into their routine in a sustainable way.

“I quickly noticed an increase in my overall energy level,” says a 33-year-old participating in the study. “Now I realize the importance of exercise and how it helps me in many aspects of my life. Not only is my body recovering but I am slowly regaining control of my emotions. It’s a great feeling to know I survived cancer, but it’s even more extraordinary to have more and more energy to accomplish everything else I want to accomplish!”

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