Is exercise better than drugs for cancer fatigue?

March 7, 2017

A recent study suggests that cancer patients may ease fatigue more effectively with exercise and psychotherapy than with medications.

Researchers conducted a meta study, which looks at data from 113 previously published studies involving more than 11,500 cancer patients with fatigue.

According to the data, exercise and psychotherapy were associated with a 26 percent to 30 percent reduction in fatigue during and after cancer treatment, the study found. Drugs, however, were tied to only a 9 percent decline in fatigue.

Cancer-related fatigue is common and may be tied to the effects of tumors or treatments. Unlike other types of exhaustion, just getting more sleep or giving aching muscles a break from strenuous activities can’t address fatigue associated with tumors.

Fatigue tied to cancer can persist for years and may be worsened by other cancer-related health problems like depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance and pain.

Most participants in the studies were female, and almost half of the studies involved women with breast cancer.

Age, gender, cancer type and forms of exercise didn’t appear to influence how effective exercise or psychotherapy was relative to medications, researchers found.

Overall, the analysis included 14 drug studies, mostly looking at stimulants or drugs designed to promote wakefulness.

Among the 69 evaluations of exercise, most looked at aerobic activity alone or in combination with other types of movement.

Of the 34 psychological interventions tested in the studies, most involved therapies focused on behavior and education.

One benefit of the current study is that researchers were able to pool the data from several individual research efforts that were, alone, too small to draw meaningful conclusions about the relative advantages of different treatments, the authors note.

Limitations include the varied designs in the studies, which made it difficult to assess how factors such as race, education, income or other demographic differences might have impacted the results, the researchers also point out.

Exercise and/or psychological interventions are beneficial for treating cancer-related fatigue and based on the results of this meta study both appear superior to current pharmaceutical treatments.

SOURCE: JAMA Oncology, online March 2, 2017.

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