Muscling Out Breast Cancer
Unfortunately, if you are a woman living in the United States today, you face a high risk of developing breast cancer at some point in your life. According to the American Cancer Society, it is the most common cancer in women, with one in every eight American women being diagnosed in her lifetime. Chances are good that you have a friend, relative, or at the very least, an acquaintance who has dealt with this disease. But the good news is that current research suggests that exercising and being fit can help improve your prognosis if you do get breast cancer.
The study, which took place at the University of Alberta in Canada, found that women with greater muscle mass may have higher rates of survival from breast cancer, even when it is diagnosed at an early or moderate stage.1 The results are based on an investigation that included 3,241 women ranging in age from 18 to 80, with an average age of 54. All the subjects were receiving treatment at either Kaiser Permanente of Northern California or the Dana Farber Cancer Institute after a diagnosis of stage two or three breast cancer between 2000 and 2013.
By performing CT scans on the abdominal area of each participant, the researchers were able to analyze their body composition of muscle and fat. Measurements were taken to determine sarcopenia (the medical term for muscle loss), poor muscle quality, and adiposity, which is excess fat. The body compositions were then evaluated against mortality rates for the volunteers.
The data showed that 34 percent of the women had muscle loss, and this group had a mortality rate of 41 percent. Among those with the most excess fat, the mortality rate was not far behind at 35 percent. And the subjects who had a combination of muscle loss and excess fat were by far in the worst situation, with a massive 89 percent mortality rate.
It is not entirely clear why a lack of muscle might affect survival from cancer, but this finding correlates to what’s been seen in other research. A 2016 study at Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Dordrecht, The Netherlands showed that low muscle mass is associated with poor outcomes in patients with malignant tumors.2
But the current investigation is striking because it included both young and older women as well as those with less advanced breast cancer. This is significant because loss of muscle is typically more pronounced as we age, so it would be a reasonable expectation that this might affect senior women. However, the fact that younger women are also at greater risk strongly suggests that they may not be developing healthy muscle mass at a much earlier age.
Not only is this potentially harmful if a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, but greater muscle mass is important to maintain a higher resting metabolism. Let’s not forget that the study showed that low muscle mass combined with excess fat resulted in an extraordinarily high risk of death. Plus, other conditions linked to overweight and obesity include diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain forms of cancer beyond just breast cancer.
Looking on the bright side, if you adopt a healthier lifestyle approach, you can increase your muscle mass, rid yourself of excess weight, and lower your risk of developing many diseases, as well as improve your prognosis if breast cancer strikes. Incorporating exercise into your routine every day is essential, even if you can only fit in a brief workout sometimes. Make sure that you include not only aerobic activity like walking or bike riding, but also strength training to tone your muscles and prevent tissue loss.
In fact, a 2017 study at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland found that the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease is substantially lower in women who do strength-training workouts. The bottom line is that when it comes to exercise, you need to do it all.
- 1. Caan, Bette J.; et al. "Association of Muscle and Adiposity Measured by Computed Tomography With Survival in Patients With Nonmetastatic Breast Cancer." JAMA Oncology. 5 April 2018. Accessed 15 April 2018. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaoncology/article-abstract/2677300?redirect=true.
- 2. Rier, Hanah N.; et al. "The Prevalence of Prognostic Value of Low Muscle Mass in Cancer Patients: A Review of the Literature." Oncologist. 13 July 2016. Accessed 16 April 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5189631/.