UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Researchers to study exercise, bone health in young breast cancer survivors

– Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, San Francisco; and the Northern California Cancer Center are putting the benefits of resistance training to a new test in an innovative study on bone health among breast cancer survivors younger than 50.

With support from a new $2.1 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, the UC researchers are teaming up with the YMCA of San Francisco to study whether weight-bearing exercises can help reduce bone loss among women who have gone through chemotherapy for breast cancer.

Studies have shown that such exercises can do wonders for improving bone health, and researchers say there is strong reason to believe that they might be beneficial for breast cancer survivors as well.

"We believe this to be the largest prospective study on the impact of exercise on women who've had chemotherapy," said Joan Bloom, professor of health policy and management at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health and principal investigator of the study. "This research also provides us an opportunity to define the prevalence of bone mineral loss in a large population-based study of breast cancer survivors."

In 2000, an estimated 50,800 women under 50 were diagnosed with breast cancer, representing about 26.4 percent of all new cases in the United States.

"More women than ever are surviving breast cancer thanks to improved screening and treatments, but what is unclear is the long-term impact of breast cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, on health and quality of life for the survivors," said Bloom.

Dr. Judith Luce, co-director of the Breast Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital and co-investigator of the study, notes that breast cancer patients under 50 typically receive treatments that are more aggressive - and more likely to bring them into early menopause - compared with women who are older.

"A significant fraction of younger women enter menopause early during chemotherapy," said Luce, who is also a clinical professor of medicine at UCSF. "We expect people in menopause to experience a rapid phase of bone mineral loss, which may put them at increased risk of osteoporosis and fractures. Our question is whether we can offset some of that bone loss through a targeted exercise program."

Researchers at the Northern California Cancer Center will be conducting the field work, enrolling approximately 400 women under 50 who have completed chemotherapy for invasive breast cancer. Candidates will be obtained through the state's cancer registry, with recruitment scheduled to begin in January 2006.

Women who participate in the intervention trial will be randomly assigned to either an exercise intervention program at one of the 12 YMCA of San Francisco branches selected for the study, or a control group. Those in the control group will receive free monthly issues of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Women in the intervention program will receive a one-year YMCA membership, be assigned a personal trainer and get a tailored exercise regimen based upon an assessment of their physical fitness. The trainer, also called a Y coach, will also provide social support and fitness counseling for the intervention group.

"We are proud to be participating in this important and timely women's health initiative," said Chuck Collins, president and CEO of the YMCA of San Francisco. "This research partnership underscores our commitment to our mission of promoting health of spirit, mind and body in the communities we serve, and should lead to important breakthroughs to benefit breast cancer survivors."

Bone density will be determined through X-ray tests and biochemical markers of bone turnover. The researchers will also monitor changes in lean body mass and reports of overall mental and physical health.

In addition to studying bone health, the researchers will monitor each participant's fitness throughout the study. "Weight gain during chemotherapy is common, possibly because women are dealing with nausea and fatigue by becoming less active," said Luce. "This study will show whether an exercise program will help these women improve their overall fitness and combat fatigue."

The results of this trial are not expected for another several years, but the researchers note that results released in May from a study led by Harvard University found exercise improved survival rates among breast cancer patients, particularly those with hormone-responsive tumors.

"If we find that exercise can also improve bone health and quality of life for women in our study, we'll be adding an empowering message to survivors of breast cancer," said Bloom.