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Robert Schwab

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Fighting Cancer With Exercise

Posted: 07/07/11 01:18 PM ET

I walked three miles today, more than I have been able to exercise since they put a bag on my belly and took a tumor and my rectum out of my bottom in September 2007. It felt good.

I was following some of the primary advice given colorectal cancer survivors -- about 60 of them -- attending the national conference of the Colon Cancer Alliance at the Marriott Denver City Center on Friday. The advice I heard most often was: keep exercising. It will prolong your life.

And that is precisely what all those survivors are looking to do. Some, like me, still have the cancer and are still fighting it. More than half of the 60 had survived the disease for more than five years, and some had passed the 10-year mark. Most of those looked pretty fit. And many of them walked in the Denver Undy 5000, a 5K and one-mile fun run and walk held this morning in City Park.

It didn't take long to be told on Friday that exercise was one of the best anti-cancer drugs. Dr. Tim Byers, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Colorado Cancer Center in Aurora, opened the day-long conference with a keynote address packed full of statistics that showed declining death rates for both men and women treated for colorectal cancer.

Why?

"We don't really know," Byers said, striking a tone that held throughout the conference: a forthright realism about everything from ordinary doctors' lackadaisical endorsement of colonoscopy -- the most effective preventive measure for colon cancer -- to the lingering effects of "chemo brain," a loss of memory and other cognitive function after prolonged chemotherapy.

Another University of Colorado Cancer Center doc, Stephen Leong, lent credence to cancer survivors' complaints of "chemo brain," and suggested that it was one of several persistent side effects doctors need to pay more attention to as increasing number of survivors live cancer-free for longer than five years.

Other speakers noted that lengthening survival times tend to make the magic five-year mark less meaningful. Cancer changes your life, many speakers agreed; but after-cancer realities are often magnified. Money problems from long-term loss of income, relationship problems from a lack of a sex life, reassessment of career goals and capacities -- these sorts of issues all make surviving cancer a new life challenge.

Byers said at the outset that researchers believe all cancers, including colorectal cancer, like car crashes, are caused by a variety of factors -- genetic and cultural, environmental, behavioral, "What we run into in life" and simple "bad luck" -- that often combine in multiple and unpredictable ways.

Colorectal cancer, however, remains the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States after lung cancer, and part of the reason is that it strikes both men and women and most of it occurs sporadically -- meaning the victim's cells mutate randomly.

Still, risk factors for colorectal cancer are listed as:

-Age, gender, race/ethnicity
-Family history
-Inflammatory bowel disease
-Diet
-Body weight
-Physical activity

But an estimated 40 percent of colorectal cancer can be attributed to four specific risks: obesity, lack of physical activity, fruit and vegetable intake, and consumption of red meats.

"For colorectal cancer, brisk walking can take down the risk factor dramatically," Byers said.

So the next morning, I decided that instead of standing around at the Undy 5000 -- where runners and walkers wear underwear over their exercise outfits to designate the geography of the colorectal problem -- I would indeed walk the three miles to see if I could do it.

It seemed the best and cheapest therapy available.

I did it -- and it felt good.

 

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