Physical activity and cancer – what we’re funding

03 February 2017 | Cancer Prevention

Lucy has a BSc in Biomedical Science and is International Communications Officer here at World Cancer Research Fund International.

Physical activity is strongly linked to a decreased risk of bowel, womb and postmenopausal breast cancer. We were the first to review the evidence and make this conclusion, through our analysis of global research in our Continuous Update Project, but we haven’t stopped there. We are funding a wide range of projects all over the world to find out more about the link between physical activity and cancer prevention and survival.

A project that we’re currently funding is led by Dr Anne May, in the Netherlands. She wants to find out if head and neck cancer patients benefit from a physical exercise programme during their chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment, and whether this would be feasible, given the side effects of the treatments. If exercise is shown to improve the outcomes for head and neck cancer patients, physical activity schedules could become a part of the standard care programme for these patients.

There is strong evidence that women with low physical activity and/or a high body mass index (BMI) are at a higher risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. However, the biological mechanisms responsible for these relationships are not yet fully understood. That's why we funded Professor Karen Steindorf from Germany, who was interested in studying why this link exists. She wanted to see if physical activity and BMI affect the levels of particular sex hormones in postmenopausal women, which could help to explain the mechanism behind the link between physical activity, BMI and breast cancer. Her findings suggest that some, but not all, sex hormones may play a role in this mechanism.

On the other side of the world, in Australia, Dr Brigid Lynch is researching whether using wearable technology activity monitors could increase physical activity and decrease sitting time among breast cancer survivors. If this intervention is found to be successful, using wearable activity monitors could become a widespread intervention to help breast cancer survivors keep active.

In a world where lifestyles are becoming more sedentary, now is the time to not only encourage research on how physical activity affects cancer risk, but also on how we can make it easier for lifestyles across the world to become more active. This will help us achieve our ultimate goal of reducing cases of preventable cancers and other chronic diseases. 

Take a look at the research we are funding and our key findings.

Lucy Eccles | 03 February 2017

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