There’s a simple, super-cheap way to prevent nasty chemotherapy side effects

There’s a simple, super-cheap way to prevent nasty chemotherapy side effects

Cancer treatment has long ceased to be just about survival. The quality of life of people who recover is becoming increasingly important. And rightly so: chemotherapy can lead to nerve damage, for example. But researchers have now found a solution to that.

Cancer treatments cause nerve damage in many patients, because the drugs – whether chemotherapy or modern immunotherapy – attack both the nerves and the tumor cells. Doctors prescribe expensive drugs to these people, but there is no evidence yet that they actually help.

But there is hope for these patients. Exercise scientist Fiona Streckmann from the University of Basel has now shown that there is a much better way to combat these serious side effects – not pills but physical activity. Simple physical exercises can prevent nerve damage caused by cancer drugs in many cases. Subjects who participated in these exercise sessions at the same time as cancer therapy performed much better in the tests.

Some cancer drugs, such as oxaliplatin or vinca alkaloids, cause 70 to 90 percent of patients to complain of pain, balance problems, numbness, burning or tingling in the limbs. It is possible that the problems disappear on their own after treatment, but in about half of cancer patients they turn into a chronic condition. Specialists call this chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, or CIPN for short. Neuropathy symptoms usually start in the toes and fingers, but can spread to the arms and legs.

Exercising alongside chemo
The European study involved 158 cancer patients. This group consisted of both men and women, who were treated with oxaliplatin or vinca alkaloids. The scientists randomly divided the patients into three groups. There was one control group that received standard care. The other two groups received a sports session twice a week during chemotherapy, lasting fifteen to thirty minutes. One of these groups performed exercises that focused on balancing on an increasingly unstable surface. The other group trained on a vibrating plate.

The subjects were followed up – as far as possible – for the next five years. This showed that about twice as many participants in the control group developed CIPN as in the two exercise groups. In other words, the exercises that the patients did in addition to chemotherapy reduced the nerve damage by 50 to 70 percent. In addition, the participants reported a higher quality of life, it was less often necessary to reduce their dose of cancer drugs and the chance of survival five years after chemotherapy was even significantly higher. The participants who received vinca alkaloid medication and performed the sensorimotor training ultimately appeared to have the greatest benefit, compared to the control group.

Classical medication useless and expensive
Over the years, a lot of money has been invested in reducing CIPN, Streckmann explains. “This side effect has a direct impact on clinical treatment: the dosage of neurotoxic agents in chemotherapy sometimes has to be reduced, or treatment has to be stopped prematurely.”

Despite this, there is still no good medicine: various studies have shown that no remedy from a jar, syringe or infusion can prevent or reverse nerve damage. Nevertheless, according to the latest estimates, around 17,000 dollars per patient is spent annually in the United States on treating nerve damage caused by chemotherapy. Streckmann assumes that ‘doctors prescribe drugs in spite of everything, because the suffering of patients is so great’.

Research in children’s hospitals
The exercise scientist makes it clear that there is a simple solution to this problem. The positive effect of exercise has indeed been proven, and this treatment is also relatively cheap. She and her team are currently working on guidelines for hospitals, so that doctors can integrate the exercises as a supportive therapy into their practice. In addition, a study has been running in six German and Swiss children’s hospitals since 2023, which is intended to prevent sensory and motor disorders in children receiving neurotoxic chemotherapy.

“The potential of physical activity is greatly underestimated,” explains Fiona Streckmann. She sincerely hopes that these spectacular research results will lead to more sports therapists working in hospitals, and that the medical world will make better use of this potential in the near future.