Taking part in a program that combines physical activity and relaxation techniques can significantly improve mood, sleep quality, and fatigue in breast cancer survivors, according to a new study in the journal, Psycho-Oncology.Women who’ve made it through a breast cancer diagnosis may feel great relief at having survived their disease. Yet in the aftermath of treatment, survivors often report having emotional distress, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping.
“Certainly there are many people who are able to adjust fine after the initial diagnosis, but there is a subset of people who are diagnosed with breast or other types of cancer who do continue to have anxiety or depression,” says study author Carolyn Rabin, PhD, assistant professor (Research), Centers for Behavioral & Preventive Medicine at
the Miriam Hospital and Brown Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island. “I think it is important to be aware that there are some patients who need some help dealing with those issues.”
Past studies have found that exercise helps improve quality of life in breast cancer survivors. Dr. Rabin and her colleagues wanted to find out if combining physical activity with a relaxation program would enhance the effect on mood, and whether this type of combined program would be feasible for cancer survivors to do.
Nineteen breast cancer survivors completed the 12-week program of physical activity and relaxation. Most of the women had been diagnosed with stage I or II cancer. At the start of the study, an intervention coordinator showed participants how to do a brisk walk, and taught them how to perform a technique called progressive muscle relaxation.
Participants were trying to reach a goal of walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week by the 12th week of the study. They were also asked to practice muscle relaxation at least four days a week. A researcher followed up with participants once a week to help them stick to the regimen and problem-solve any obstacles they encountered, and then checked in once a month for another three months.
At the end of the study, participants said their mood had improved, they were sleeping better, and were feeling less tired. They also reported a significant reduction in tension and anxiety. What’s more, they were exercising for nearly two hours more a week than they had been before the study.
When asked how they felt about the program, 90% of the women said they enjoyed the exercise portion and 74% liked the relaxation. Dr. Rabin says the high level of satisfaction probably stems from the women’s perception that stress was having a big influence on their health, and exercise and relaxation are effective ways to relieve stress. “I think that both exercising and doing some type of relaxation kind of fits in with their own idea of what they need to be doing to be healthy,” she says. Most of the participants also said they felt the program was very feasible to do.
This program was designed within a research setting, but anyone can take advantage of its basic principles, Dr. Rabin says. “As long as their doctor says it’s okay for them to engage in moderate intensity activity, then basically we would encourage people to gradually work up to doing at least 30 minutes a day on at least five days a week,” she says. “That’s a brisk walk, so you would go at the same pace you’d use if you were trying to catch a bus.”
Relaxation tapes or books can be helpful for learning the relaxation technique used in this study, but it’s not necessary to do progressive muscle relaxation to gain the benefits. Yoga and other programs that promote relaxation can also be helpful, Dr. Rabin says.
Rabin C, Pinto B, Dunsiger S, Nash J, Trask P. Exercise and relaxation intervention for breast cancer survivors: feasibility, acceptability and effects. Psycho-Oncology. 2008.