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Exercise, Maintaining Healthy Weight May Help Reduce Risk of Neuropathy Caused by Chemotherapy

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Peripheral neuropathy (also called chemotherapy-associated peripheral neuropathy) is a side effect that can be caused by some chemotherapy medicines. Peripheral neuropathy is nerve damage in the hands, feet, arms, or legs caused by chemotherapy. Symptoms include burning, tingling, or numbness in the hands and feet. Neuropathy symptoms can be severe and painful.

A study suggests that maintaining a healthy weight and exercising 5 or more hours per week may help reduce the risk of neuropathy in women being treated with taxane chemotherapy for breast cancer.

The research was presented on June 5, 2016 at the 2016 American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting. Read the abstract of “Body mass index, lifestyle factors, and taxane-induced neuropathy in women with breast cancer: The Pathways Study.”

Taxane chemotherapy medicines are:

  • Taxol (chemical name: paclitaxel)
  • Taxotere (chemical name: docetaxel)
  • Abraxane (chemical name: albumin-bound or nab-paclitaxel)

Taxanes work by interfering with the ability of cancer cells to divide.

The study included 1,608 women from northern California who were diagnosed with breast cancer from 2006 to 2013. All the women were treated with taxane chemotherapy.

The researchers recorded specific physical and lifestyle factors from the women, including:

  • body mass index (BMI): normal BMI was less than 25, overweight was 25-29, and obese was 30 or higher
  • fruit and vegetable consumption: low was fewer than 35 servings per week, high was 35 or more servings per week
  • time spent on moderate or vigorous physical activity: low was fewer than 2.5 hours per week, medium was 2.5-5 hours per week, high was more than 5 hours per week
  • whether the women took antioxidant supplements
  • whether the women started or stopped using antioxidant supplements during chemotherapy or whether they continued using or not using them through chemotherapy
  • the severity of neuropathy symptoms

The researchers recorded these factors at the beginning of the study and then every 6 months after the study started. The study lasted for 2 years.

At the beginning of the study, the researchers found:

  • 33% of the women were obese, with a BMI of 30 or higher
  • 58% ate few fruits and vegetables, eating fewer than 35 servings per week
  • 31% did fewer than 2.5 hours per week of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity
  • 10% used antioxidant supplements during chemotherapy

At the end of the study, the researchers found that women who exercised for 5 or more hours per week were less likely to have neuropathy symptoms get worse compared to women who exercised fewer than 2.5 hours per week.

Also, women who were considered obese were more likely to have neuropathy symptoms get worse than women who were considered to be at a normal weight.

Women who started or stopped using antioxidant supplements during chemotherapy were more likely to have neuropathy symptoms get worse than women who didn’t use antioxidant supplements.

While this study only looked for an association between exercise and neuropathy symptoms, there are many other benefits to regular exercise if you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer:

  • a lower risk of breast cancer coming back (recurrence)
  • easier to maintain a healthy weight
  • fewer and less severe side effects from treatment
  • more energy
  • better mobility
  • more muscle mass and strength
  • healthy bones
  • better self-esteem and less stress
  • better sleep

“This study adds to the body of evidence showing that having a lower BMI and exercising can help mitigate breast cancer treatment side effects, in this case neuropathy,” said Dr. Michael Stubblefield, M.D., director of cancer rehabilitation and the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation. “Exercise has many benefits and is always good.” Dr. Stubblefield is an internationally recognized leader in the field of cancer rehabilitation.

If you’re busy with work, household chores, and family matters, finding time to exercise almost every day can be hard. Exercising also can be extremely difficult if you’re recovering from breast cancer treatment or having painful neuropathy symptoms. Still, it’s worth your while to make time to move.

It can help to break up your exercise into 20- or 30-minute sessions that add up to about 5 or more hours per week. Walking is a great way to start. Maybe you walk 30 minutes before going to work and 30 minutes on your lunch break. You can add a few more minutes by parking farther away from your building or taking mass transit. Or you can make plans to walk with a friend after work -- you’re more likely to stick with exercise if someone else is counting on you. Plus, you can socialize at the same time.

Visit the Exercise section for tips on exercising safely and how to stick to an exercise routine.

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