The Role of Physical Activity in Cancer: A Refreshing Perspective

Diverse Hands Holding The Word Exercise

Physical activity plays an important role in the health, well-being, and quality of life for all Canadians. However, few would think that exercise can help those people who are currently battling cancer themselves. Stereotypical depictions of cancer patients and the treatments they receive has caused many Canadians to believe that bedrest is the only option for someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. Although bed rest may be required during intense periods of treatment, physical activity is not always a bad thing, and is usually encouraged. In fact, numerous studies have shown that physical activity is not only effective at improving cancer patients’ health outcomes, but also in their caregivers’ health.1

After receiving treatment, many cancer patients do not get enough physical activity, and as a result, they develop more sedentary lifestyles. Inactivity is a major factor in determining their overall health outcomes, including their own cancer prognoses, and can impact the rate of cancer recurrence.2 Thus, getting sufficient physical activity should be a priority for anyone who has or has had cancer.

Fortunately, exercise can take many shapes and forms – it doesn’t always mean going to the gym, lifting weights, or even doing strenuous cardiovascular activity. Fitness gaming, or “exergaming” – a term used for video games that are also a form of exercise – is a new form of physical activity that relies on technology to track body movements and reactions. Compared with traditional non-active video games, exergaming can contribute to significant amounts of overall daily physical activity, particularly in those who cannot engage in traditional forms of exercise.3

Despite knowing the value of exercise in cancer, depression, which is commonly co-diagnosed with cancer, can be a significant barrier to getting sufficient physical activity. Although the symptoms of depression (including low mood, decreased motivation, poor energy, and decreased sleep) may undermine someone’s ability to get exercise or even get out of bed, activity itself may be a suitable treatment to address depression symptoms, particularly in young adults.4

Overall, the research shows that exercise and physical activity can benefit people with cancer in numerous ways. The message we’d like to communicate is that if you can get any physical activity, you will reap many benefits!


  • Ann Behav Med. 2016 Jul 20. A Descriptive Systematic Review of Physical Activity Interventions for Caregivers: Effects on Caregivers’ and Care Recipients’ Psychosocial Outcomes, Physical Activity Levels, and Physical Health. Lambert SD, Duncan LR, Kapellas S, Bruson AM, Myrand M, Santa Mina D, Culos-Reed N, Lambrou A.
  • Ann Epidemiol. 2014 Nov;24(11):837-42. Identification and prediction of physical activity trajectories in women treated for breast cancer. Brunet J, Amireault S, Chaiton M, Sabiston CM.
  • J Phys Act Health. 2015 Jun;12(6):789-93. doi: 10.1123/jpah.2013-0447. Epub 2014 Aug 15. The Association Between Exergaming and Physical Activity in Young Adults. Kakinami L, O’Loughlin EK, Dugas EN, Sabiston CM, Paradis G, O’Loughlin J.
  • Prev Med. 2014 Sep;66:45-8. Physical activity motivation mediates the association between depression symptoms and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Scarapicchia TM, Sabiston CM, O’Loughlin E, Brunet J, Chaiton M, O’Loughlin JL.


This article was written by Dr. Anees Bahji, Psychiatry Resident at Queen’s University.

Let’s Talk Cancer


On Wednesday, May 18th 2016, approximately 250 grade 7-12 students from 6 schools across Kingston and the surrounding area gathered at Queen’s University to learn more about the field of cancer research during the second annual Let’s Talk Cancer Symposium hosted by the Kingston branch of the Canadian Cancer Society Research Information Outreach Team (RIOT) in collaboration with Let’s Talk Science, Queen’s chapter. The outreach event began with introductions by Dr. Roger Deeley (Vice-Dean Research, Faculty of Health Sciences), Dr. David Berman (Director, Queen’s Cancer Research Institute), and Doug Kane (Manager, Canadian Cancer Society, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington & The Waterways Community Office). The students were then shown a real-life example of the impact of cancer research through a video about Elana Simon, a teenager diagnosed with fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma who worked at Rockefeller University to identify the mutation underlying the disease.

To provide the students an overall introduction to cancer biology, RIOT members presented on important aspects of cancer research, such as cancer biology, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, stem cell therapy, and hot topics in cancer research. Keynote addresses were presented by Dr. Michael Brundage (Director, Cancer Care and Epidemiology), Dr. Andrew Craig (Associate Professor, Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) and Dr. Lois Mulligan (Professor, Pathology). While Dr. Brundage spoke on the complex decisions a patient has to make after being diagnosed with cancer, Dr. Craig spoke about the exciting field of precision medicine, and Dr. Mulligan emphasized the importance of collaborating in the field of cancer research. After a morning of talks, students enjoyed lunch partially sponsored by Pita Pit and had the opportunity to speak with Queen’s Admissions and Career Services as well as peruse research posters from RIOT members.

In the afternoon, students were divided into groups to participate in hands-on sessions. The highlight of the afternoon for most students was the anatomy museum. With the expertise of Dr. Bruce Elliott (Professor, Pathology), students were able to see first-hand what cancer does to the body in order, emphasizing the complex anatomical nature of this disease. A look into the world of medical physics and imaging with Dr. Andrew Kerr (Associate Professor, Oncology and Physics) gave insight into the medical physics facilities at Queen’s University while explaining the importance of medical radiation. Another highlight was the career session with RIOT members and Siobhan McArdle (SE Ontario Regional Hospice Education Coordinator) where interactive activities were used to introduce students to the various careers that are possible in the field of cancer research. Overall, the day proved to be an interactive and educational experience for students and we hope it helped inspire the next generation of cancer researchers.

This article was written by Catherine Crawford-Brown, a M.Sc candidate in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, and part of the Collaborative Graduate Program in Cancer Research at Queen’s University.

Celebrity Cancer Series: Angelina Jolie

In 2013, Angelina Jolie, the American actress, filmmaker and humanitarian, and receiver of numerous awards, made the difficult decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy. Two years later, Jolie underwent another preventive surgery—this time, her ovaries and fallopian tubes were removed. Jolie lost her mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer. A simple blood test revealed that Jolie carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, giving her an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of developing ovarian cancer. Learning this, Jolie took her health into her own hands.

With an estimated 25 000 Canadian women being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, breast cancer continues to be the most common cancer among Canadian women and the second leading cause of death from cancer. Choosing to undergo preventive surgery is not a light decision; however, a woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer  greatly increases if she inherits a harmful mutation in BRCA1.

There is a common misconception that women “inherit the BRCA1 cancer gene” and that this will eventually cause a woman to develop cancer. Contrary to this belief, we need the BRCA1 gene. This gene produces proteins that help repair damaged DNA and ensures the stability of our genetic information in our cells. However, when this gene is mutated and the protein is not produced or is not functioning properly, DNA damage may not be repaired properly causing the genes in our cells to accumulate more changes that can lead to cancer.

Although 55-65 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA1 mutation will develop breast cancer and approximately 39 percent will develop ovarian cancer, testing positive for this mutation does not reveal that an individual will certainly develop cancer; it reveals only that they are at an increased risk. It is important to remember that other characteristics of a women can increase or lower one’s cancer risk, such as one’s reproductive history and physical activity levels. Still, less than half of breast cancer cases can be explained by well-established risk factors. Ongoing cancer research efforts here at Queen’s University will hopefully allow us to understand and treat this disease better, and eventually improve our chances for preventing this disease.

This article was written by Carmen Chan, a MSc candidate in the Department of Public Health Sciences at Queen’s University, and a Canadian Cancer Society Research Information Outreach Team (RIOT) member.

Celebrity Cancer Series: Michael Hall

Michael C. Hall is an American actor born in 1971 in Raleigh North Carolina. He began his acting career in theatre, appearing in numerous Off-Broadway shows, before taking the stage in Broadway shows like Chicago, and Cabaret.  His first major television role was playing David Fisher on the drama series “Six Feet Under”.  More recently, he is best known for his starring role as the vigilante serial killer Dexter Morgan on the crime drama “Dexter”. In 2010 at the age of 38, Hall announced that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, and was undergoing treatment for the disease.

Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer that arises in cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell, and are part of the immune system and help fight infection. These cells travel through a network of vessels called lymphatics, allowing them to move from lymph nodes and lymphatic organs, like the spleen and bone marrow, to sites of disease and infection. There are two main types of lymphocytes, called B cells and T cells. Abnormal B cells typically cause Hodgkin lymphoma. These cells no longer behave properly, and grow at an enhanced rate.

Because lymphocytes travel all over the body, the cancer can present anywhere. It is usually first observed as an enlarged lymph node, but can spread to almost any tissue or organ in the body. Michael first noticed lumps in his neck, which he jokingly referred to as looking like “alien eggs”. When biopsied, these lumps revealed that he was suffering from Hodgkin lymphoma; the same news that close to 1,000 Canadians receive each year.

Fortunately, Hodgkin lymphoma is often curable when detected early. It is most commonly treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. Michael began a course of treatment after filming the fifth season of “Dexter”. He experienced some of the unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy such as hair-loss, which was particularly devastating for an actor whose career involves being in the public eye.

After completing his treatment regimen, he was declared in full remission later that year. With healthy blood cells, Michael returned to his role as a blood splatter analyst on “Dexter” and went on to film three more seasons of the popular show. He remains in remission to this day.

This article is written by Kathleen Watt, a PhD candidate in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, and part of the Terry Fox Foundation Training Program in Transdisciplinary Cancer Research in Partnership with CIHR.