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Aerobic Exercise May Relieve Pain for Ovarian Cancer Survivors

Two women exercising outdoors.
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One common side effect of treatment for ovarian cancer is chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN), which can damage peripheral nerves, causing severe pain and numbness. The effects can last for months – or even years — after completing chemotherapy. Currently, there is only one treatment with limited efficacy for CIPN. But Yale Cancer Center reveals new findings from a phase III randomized clinical trial that suggest six months of an aerobic exercise intervention reduces CIPN symptoms among ovarian cancer survivors.

The new research was published in JAMA Network Open on August 1.

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“The results from this trial hold the potential to transform supportive care for ovarian cancer survivors by offering a new approach to managing CIPN,” said senior author Leah Ferrucci, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health and member of Yale Cancer Center. "These findings provide compelling evidence that a structured home-based aerobic exercise program can significantly improve CIPN in ovarian cancer survivors who have completed chemotherapy.”

Participants were enrolled in the Women's Activity and Lifestyle Study in Connecticut (WALC) between May 2010 and March 2014. The structured aerobic exercise WALC intervention had already been found to improve physical health-related quality of life. In the current analysis, the researchers evaluated the impact of the exercise program compared to an attention-control group on CIPN severity in patients with ovarian cancer who received chemotherapy.

Among the 134 participants, those in the exercise intervention arm reported a reduction of 1.3 points in CIPN symptoms at the end of the six-month program. In contrast, the attention-control group experienced a minor increase in CIPN symptoms of 0.4 points. The positive effects of aerobic exercise were even stronger for participants with CIPN symptoms at trial enrollment. This subgroup experienced a larger reduction (2.0 points) in CIPN severity.

"Incorporating referrals to exercise intervention programs into standard oncology care could be a game-changer, reducing CIPN symptoms and enhancing the quality of life for patients with ovarian cancer,” said first author Anlan Cao, a doctoral student at the Yale School of Public Health. “While further studies are needed to replicate these promising results in patients with ovarian cancer and other cancer types, if aerobic exercise proves to be a reliable treatment for CIPN, it could offer a wide range of cancer survivors a better approach to manage neuropathy symptoms.”

Reference: Cao A, Cartmel B, Li FY, et al. Effect of exercise on chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy among patients treated for ovarian cancer: A secondary analysis of a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(8):e2326463. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.26463

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