CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Breast cancer patients deal with fatigue, depression, pain and worry. Exercise can help them feel better and enjoy life more. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill want to know if exercise plus recreational therapy is even better than exercise alone.
Gretchen Hoag, 46, comes for one hour, three days a week. She never thought she could do it.
"I hate exercising and have always hated exercise," she said.
After a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, however, Hoag wanted a stronger body.
"Exercise after cancer can definitely help prevent recurrence, and it would just make you feel better," she said.
"They experience less nausea, less fatigue. (Their) overall quality of life has improved significantly," said UNC exercise physiologist Claudio Battaglini.
Hoag joined a UNC study program called "Get REAL (Recreation, Exercise, Active, Living) and Heel" that combines exercise with recreational therapy. A video game uses bio-feedback. Sensors on Hoag's fingers pick up her heart rate and sweat.
"That sweat is actually indicative of either stress, anxiety or else positive emotions," said Diane Groff, an assistant professor at the UNC Department of Exercise and Sport Science.
Officials said special video games, crafts, music and other activities strengthen the mind while exercise strengthens the body.
On her own, Hoag was afraid exercise might cause problems with lymphedema, a swelling of the arm on the side of the mastectomy. However, medically supervised exercise relieved those fears.
"I would never have known what I was able to do and so my gut feeling would have been like, 'Well, I can't do anything because I don't want this condition,'" she said.
Hoag is still getting treatments to prevent breast cancer recurrence, but she believes the work on her mind and body may be her best medicine.
Many women said some biofeedback games would be very helpful to them when they are in the middle of tough chemotherapy because it is something to take their mind off of the discomfort and toxicity of the medicine and onto more positive things.