Exercise Effective Intervention in Managing Cancer Treatment–Related Fatigue

Side effects from cancer treatment can greatly affect the quality of life for many patients. Among the many troubling side effects, patients often describe loss of functional capacity and fatigue as some of the most debilitating (Hanna, Avila, Meteer, Nicholas, & Kaminsky, 2008). Research has found, however, that exercise has proven to be an effective management tool.

What Is Important About Exercise and Its Relationship to Cancer?

More patients than ever before are surviving cancer today. Each of these survivors has experienced some type of cancer treatment, varying from a single surgery to months or years of radiation, chemotherapy, and/or biotherapy. All of these treatments carry with them potentially harmful side effects, which are varied but may include weakness, fatigue, hair loss, nausea, pain, depression, and others, often culminating in a decline in the quality of life for patients.

Fatigue is often recognized as one of the most distressing side effects reported by patients and usually is more severe while patients are receiving treatment. Research has focused on ways to improve the quality of life of survivors, which includes addressing fatigue and loss of functional capacity to finding strategies to manage it more effectively. By the mid-1980s, research began to demonstrate that exercise is an effective management tool (Hanna et al., 2008).

How Do You Develop an Exercise Program for Patients With Cancer?

The goals of an exercise program should be specific and well-defined (e.g., to alleviate symptoms, to improve functional capacity, to restore muscle function). Because specific interventions will likely produce specific outcomes, these goals should drive the interventions. The most common types of exercise are aerobic, strength training, and flexibility. However, given the heterogeneity of cancer types, a one-size-fits-all approach to exercise and cancer is unlikely to be effective.

The goals will define the exercise prescription, which has five components: mode, intensity, duration, frequency, and progression (Whaley, Brubacker, & Otto, 2006). An important factor to consider is whether the program will be supervised or home-based. Exercise testing to determine baseline functioning is critically important, as is the evaluative process chosen to determine progress. Many quality-of-life evaluative methods can address the end points that are often targeted in exercise prescriptions.


Hanna, L.R., Avila, P.F., Meteer, J.D., Nicholas, D.R., & Kaminsky, L.A. (2008). The effects of a comprehensive exercise program on physical function, fatigue, and mood in patients with various types of cancer. Oncology Nursing Forum, 35, 461–469. doi: 10.1188/08.ONF.461-469

Whaley, M., Brubacker, P., & Otto, R. (Eds.). (2006). American College of Medicine’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription (7th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.