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Researchers to Test If New Exercise Regimen Could Help Some Breast Cancer Survivors

October 29, 2018
Janet Kneiss (left) and Lisa Wood
Assistant professor of physical therapy Dr. Janet Kneiss (left) and Professor of nursing Dr. Lisa Wood.

As the world recognizes Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, a pair of researchers at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston is looking at ways to improve the lives of almost one third of breast cancer survivors.

Professor of nursing Lisa Wood and assistant professor of physical therapy Janet Kneiss are using a two-year grant from the National Institute on Aging to test whether survivors who are diagnosed with severe cancer-related fatigue (CRF) can be helped by changing their exercise regimen.

People with CRF have constant physical, emotional, and cognitive weariness, said Dr. Wood, director of the MGH Institute’s Fatigue Research Lab and an associate member of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. “It’s not uncommon for breast cancer survivors to feel exhausted all day, every day, no matter what they do,” she noted. “Even after sleeping 12 hours, it takes an enormous effort to get out of bed, never mind trying to climb a flight of stairs. So it seems to us that the current one-size-fits-all exercise model doesn’t work for them.”

Exercise for cancer survivors has shown to increase strength and mobility, reduce fatigue, improve quality of life, and decrease the risk of cancer recurrence. Current exercise programs recommend breast cancer survivors work out 150 minutes each week, which includes strength training two or three days. Dr. Kneiss, manager of the MGH Institute’s Biomotions Lab where she focuses on biomechanics and therapeutic exercise, said their study will be among the first in the country to use a novel way of measuring muscle fatigue that assesses global changes in leg muscle power during a functional sit and stand task. Previous studies assessed muscle fatigue by measuring electrical activity in isolated muscle groups in the arms or legs which does not accurately measure muscle fatigue. 

“We think these cancer survivors are losing significantly more muscle power during exercise than those who don’t report having fatigue,” said Kneiss. “This would help explain why they have poorer mobility, strength, and endurance than their non-fatigued counterparts”

The interdisciplinary team will test cancer survivors with and without fatigue, using specialized force plates embedded in the floor, to record leg muscle power during a 15-minute stretch of standing and sitting, immediately followed by testing the person’s mobility. This will give them hard data on whether breast cancer survivors have problems generating muscle power when exercising which could lead to a new approach that would improve their quality of life with increased mobility.